Petrolatum, colloquially known as petroleum jelly or by the popular brand names Vaseline, Aquaphor, CeraVe’ Healing Ointment, Polysporin, has a rich history dating back to its discovery in the 19th century. In the last 160 years, it’s claimed its place as a fundamental ingredient in many skincare products today. 

However, it has been a subject of controversy and confusion among skincare enthusiasts due to its association with crude oil. Today, we’ll clear up some of the misconceptions about petrolatum so you can make informed decisions about your skincare. 

What is Petrolatum?

Petrolatum, or petroleum jelly, is a semi-solid mixture of hydrocarbons derived from petroleum, a fossil fuel that undergoes intensive refinement and purification for cosmetic use, during which manufacturers remove harmful impurities. In its final form, petrolatum is a clear, odorless jelly-like substance. It’s not water-soluble, meaning it doesn’t dissolve in water, a key characteristic that makes it such a valuable ingredient in skincare.

Robert Chesebrugh discovered petrolatum in 1859 when he visited a New York oil rig and noticed a paraffin-like substance on the machine parts. From there, Chesebrugh refined the petrolatum production process and patented his product as a topical ointment with healing properties.

The primary role of petrolatum in skincare is as an occlusive moisturizer, a substance that creates a physical barrier on the skin. When applied to the skin, petrolatum forms a protective layer that traps moisture, helping the skin retain hydration. It’s particularly beneficial for dry and sensitive skin, where the skin barrier may be compromised, leading to increased water loss, also known as transepidermal water loss (TEWL). According to a 2017 study, “Petrolatum is the most effective classic occlusive moisturizer; a minimum concentration of 5% can reduce trans-epidermal water loss by more than 98%, with 170 times water vapor loss resistance as compared to olive oil.”

Another vital function of petrolatum is promoting wound healing. Several studies have shown that a moist wound environment, like the one created by petrolatum, can accelerate the healing process and reduce the risk of scarring. It protects the wound from external irritants and bacteria while keeping it moist, which aids the skin’s natural healing process.

Finally, petrolatum acts as a skin protectant. It is often used in products designed to protect the skin from environmental irritants, like wind and cold weather, or bodily fluids, such as in diaper rash ointments.

As such, you can find it in many different kinds of skincare products, including:

  • Moisturizers and Creams: Petrolatum is a common ingredient in moisturizers and creams, designed to combat dry skin conditions, such as NeoStrata Bionic Face Cream, as well as elta MD Moisturizer. It helps lock in moisture, ensuring the skin remains hydrated longer. NeoStrata Problem Dry Skin also helps moisturize the feet while turning over dry skin with it’s 20% AHA.
  • Lip Balms: Unlike the rest of your skin, your lips lack oil glands, which makes them prone to dryness and chapping. Petrolatum-based lip balms like Dr. Dan’s Cortibalm and elta MD UV Lip Balm SPF 36 form a protective layer over your lips, preventing water loss and keeping them moisturized and supple.
  • Wound Healing Products: As mentioned earlier, petrolatum creates a moist environment conducive to wound healing. You’ll often find it in over-the-counter antibiotic ointments and post-procedure healing creams. Its ability to keep wounds moist speeds up healing and minimizes scarring. Biafine, available at AST by prescription, is an excellent product to promote wound healing. Polysporin, CeraVe Healing Ointment and Aquaphor are over-the-counter products that work to heal as well.
  • Skin Protectant Products: Petrolatum is often used in products designed to provide a barrier against skin irritants. Diaper rash creams are a good example. They protect the baby’s sensitive skin from the irritating effects of urine and feces while helping rashes heal more quickly.
  • Barrier Creams: For those with skin conditions like eczema, petrolatum-based barrier creams can help protect the compromised skin barrier, reducing symptoms and preventing flare-ups.

Myths and Misconceptions about Petrolatum

Though petrolatum offers many proven benefits, it’s often the subject of various myths and misconceptions. Let’s wrap up our discussion on petrolatum by debunking a few of the most common ones. If you have any questions about petrolatum and whether it’s something to consider incorporating into your skincare routine, schedule an appointment with Dr. Elizabeth Briden!

Myth 1: Petrolatum Clogs Pores

Contrary to popular belief, petrolatum doesn’t clog pores. It’s non-comedogenic, meaning it’s specially formulated so it won’t block pores, which can lead to acne. This misconception arises because petrolatum forms a layer on the skin. However, this layer is protective, not pore-clogging.

Myth 2: Petrolatum is Unsafe Because it’s Derived from Petroleum

Petrolatum does indeed originate from petroleum, but it undergoes a rigorous refining and purifying processes to remove any potentially harmful compounds. The petrolatum used in skincare is entirely safe, and it’s approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

Myth 3: Petrolatum Causes Cancer

No scientific evidence suggests that petrolatum, as used in cosmetics, causes cancer. This myth stems from concerns about impure petrolatum containing Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, some of which can be carcinogenic. However, cosmetic-grade petrolatum is highly refined and does not contain these substances.