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Petroleum jelly vaseline has been a mainstay in homes for the past 140 years. But why on earth would you want to smear crude oil on your skin?

I know a girl who thinks of ghosts
She’ll make ya breakfast
She’ll make ya toast
She don’t use butter
She don’t use cheese
She don’t use jelly
Or any of these
She uses Vaseline

~ Flaming Lips She Don’t Use Jelly (1993)

The commonly known brand Vaseline, now owned by Unilever, has been a staple product in many homes. That goop-filled jar with its blue color scheme and cursive writing has become an iconic part of American culture.

By the late 1880s, Vaseline petroleum jelly was being sold nationwide at the rate of one jar per minute and most medical professionals recognized it as the standard remedy for skin complaints.

Vaseline runs through our veins. Think about it: the imprint is forged during infancy when your mom smears it on your bottom to avoid diaper rash. In later years, perhaps petroleum jelly helped you preserve a saddle or baseball glove, or kept your lips from getting chapped in a blizzard. Or maybe it’s been part of your makeup regimen since you were 16.

Vaseline gained star status a few years ago when Unilever asked Mad Fashion star and Project Runway alum Chris March to super-glam their tubs of distilled crude oil. The result: a limited edition of jars blinged out with about $100 worth of blue and white Swarovski crystals.

Tyra Banks, who calls Vaseline her “biggest beauty secret ever,” doled out some of those bedazzled jars to an audience of cackling, hysterical women. If you saw the frenzy that ensued, you’d think Tyra was giving away millions and not just a jar of refined petrochemicals that retails for $9.99.

Did the ladies believe the tub would transform them into supermodels because Tyra had personally handed it to them on national TV?

Hugh Hefner and his bunnies, icons in their own right, are also avid fans of Vaseline. Several years ago, during a film shoot, an ex-boyfriend told me he’d noticed a jar in each room of the Playboy mansion. Even by the tennis courts.

From Drilling Rigs To Pharmacy Aisles

By the sounds of the inventor, I doubt he’d be rolling in his grave. I bet he’d be proud of Vaseline’s evolution. It was 1872 when 22-year-old Robert Chesebrough, a London-born Capricorn and chemist living in Brooklyn, discovered Vaseline. It was following a visit to an oil rig where he noticed a gooey substance, which was raw petrolatum.

Oil workers would smear their skin with residue from their drills and it appeared to aid the healing of cuts and burns.  After much experimentation, Chesebrough developed a process to distill the rod wax into petrolatum. This was a man who had once clarified Kerosene out of whale sperm for a living. The discovery of petroleum had made his skills obsolete. Until now.

Chesebrough was a natural when it came to marketing. He would supposedly burn his skin with acid or on an open flame, and then spread the clear jelly on his injuries, while demonstrating past injuries now healed by his miracle product, as he so claimed.

Today petroleum jelly has saturated the Beauty Industry and is now found in a slew of cosmetics, hair conditioners, and lotions.

Beauty Is Skin Deep

While Vaseline was first marketed as an ointment, it does not actually heal cuts and burns as previously thought. The petroleum jelly basically creates a seal, which can protect a wound from invasion. On the other hand, it also traps bad bacteria in the skin. Is petroleum jelly really superior to a good old-fashioned scab?

“If you were to take a barrel of oil, you would see that it’s not homogenous throughout,” explains Guerry L. Grune, Ph.d., P.A. and owner of 3rd rock Sunblock. “The bottom consists of a gunky sludge and that is what is turned into Vaseline by distilling crude oil at very high temperatures.”

It’s left over gunk. Why not convince an entire planet that it’s a great skin aid!?

This process also creates potent atmospheric pollutants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can contaminate petroleum jelly. PAHs are environmental pollutants that may be found in air attached to dust particles, in soil, stream sediment, water, and food. A study linking PAHs to breast cancer was completed at Columbia University in 2004. The study indicated that breast tissue of women with breast cancer were 2.6 times more likely to have increased amounts of PAHs attached to their DNA than the breast tissue of women without breast cancer.

In their Skin Deep database, the Environmental Working Group lists petroleum as a nearly-moderate concern and PAHs as high and cancerous.

The FDA restricts petrolatum in food to no more than 10 parts per million, and requires petrolatum used in food packaging or drugs to meet impurity restrictions for PAHs. So I don’t know about those who spread it on toast. Yuck!

PAHs are also linked to reproductive/developmental toxicity (by the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, among other sources), endocrine disruption, persistence, and bioaccumulation. They are banned for use in cosmetics in Europe and Canada.

Other Perils of Petrolatum

Up to 60 percent of whatever we put on our skin goes into our blood stream. Petrolatum, which was eventually used for its cost-effective glide in makeup applications, is an emollient and not a moisturizer, remarks Eric A. Weiss, MD, plastic surgeon and Medical Director of Love Alchemy; so theoretically it decreases oxygen and can suffocate the skin.

“Petroleum is essentially a fossil fuel and while manufacturers like Vaseline state they can take the hydrocarbons out, in most cases consumers have no real way of knowing. It’s not the best thing for the skin,” adds Weiss.

Other problems have been discovered through the years, including something called “lipid pneumonia,” contracted when petroleum jelly is used around and inside the nose, adds Carly Stewart, MD and Medical Expert at MoneyCrashers.com.

“There has only ever been one case of lipid pneumonia caused by Vaseline that I am aware of, but this risk is the reason ENT physicians recommend water-based gels to be used in the nose for nasal drying and crusting. It is best to use water-based health products whenever possible so as not to introduce possibly harmful chemicals into your body.”

Petrolatum or mineral oil jelly and mineral oils can also cause skin photosensitivity or promote sun damage. Petrolatum may interfere with the body’s moisturizing mechanism, leading to dry skin and chapping despite its cosmetic use as lip protection. According to the Environmental Working Group, petrolatum may be found in one of every 14 products as well as 15 percent of lipsticks and 40 percent of baby lotions and oils.

While it has not been definitively proven that petroleum-based products are carcinogenic in humans, those who want to err on the side of caution and wish to avoid petrolatum in their skin care products can look for ingredients listed as petroleum jelly, petrolatum, white petrolatum, mineral oil (which is a petroleum-derived oil), and soft paraffin.

Skin Care Alternatives Outside of Petroleum Jelly

Even if a petroleum jelly product is void of PAHS, it likely has other iffy stuff. Take for instance, the Vaseline of today; it is loaded with “other” ingredients considered irritants and endocrine disruptors, such as parabens, potassium hydroxide, myethyparabens, propybparabens, triethanolamine, and fragrance.

“I avoid petroleum jelly and petroleum-derived ingredients, as superb alternatives exist. There are so many other lovely alternatives, which are not based on a dwindling resource,” remarks Joanna Runciman, BSc, author of Actual Organics: The Radiant Woman’s Handbook. “I just keep skin care really simple and avoid any ingredients that I cannot ingest. Stick with ‘edible skin care’ and you’ll be good.”

9 thoughts on “Petroleum Jelly Vaseline — Don’t Rub It On Despite What Tyra Banks (Or Tik Tok) Says”

  1. I’ve been using Vaseline on my (lips/hands/cuticles/rough feet) sensitive skin for decades and have never suffered anything but softness. I believe the purity testing standard (USP) takes care of the toxicity element of the raw crude product before it hits the shelves. Vaseline is dermatologist recommended and accepted into the National Eczema Association.

  2. Just a few clarifications & corrections:

    He visited the drilling site (not oil rig) in 1859, not 1872. He patented his process for extracting and refining rod wax into petrolatum in 1865. Originally marketed as “Wonder Jelly”, in 1872 Chesbrough changed the name to “Vaseline”.

    Chesebrough, was London-born, but an American

    The substance, termed “rod wax”, was a petrolatum-precursor.

    “This was a man who had once clarified Kerosene out of whale sperm” – ah, nope.

    The oil in question is called “Sperm Oil” or Spermaceti. It is not “whale sperm”. It IS however from the Sperm Whale.

    The discovery of how to more easily clarify kerosene from petroleum (as opposed to clarifying it from coal or oil shale) made whale oils in general , and Sperm Oil specifically, obsolete.

  3. Toxic? Haha. Another internet article filled with absolute nonsense. With regards to vaseline, people working in the oil industry saw its healing properties first because the skin on their hands improved .. and it went from there. Petroleum Jelly is a great, cheap and versatile product and widely appreciated all over the world. My grandmother has been using petroleum jelly on her face/under her eyes for probably 60 years -she is 89 now- and her skin looks great. Now. I am not saying that this is due to Vaseline -there is nothing magical about it (or any other skin product for that matter), but for sure it has not made her skin nor her health any worse either. Tyra Banks is in deed smart to use and recommend Vaseline as it is far more effective than most of the rubbish being sold on the market today (read : “serums” what a catchy name.. doesn’t it sound almost as if it has surgical properties?). 100% natural paraben-free elixir-products selling for $$$$$.. -Scam). You are far better off with a box of Vaseline. So, now that you’ve read this article, I recommend you to go and get a copy of “The Scientific Revolution” by Dr. Hannah Sivak. This book explains the basics of skin physiology and skin’s interaction with chemicals in a simple and easy way.

  4. I’m writing this both from other sources on the history of petroleum jelly, as well as from my own memory (although I really wasn’t alive in the 1860’s ????). I remember having to stir the petroleum jelly, as it was a little stiff. I don’t remember it having a horrible smell, mostly, I think, because if it wasn’t food, perfume, or sheets off the line, I would have expected it to smell medicinal or like cleaning products. This is why having a cleaning product that smelled like “a pine forest” was such a big deal. It didn’t smell like a cleaning product that was important- not that women wanted to smell a pine forest in their kitchens.

    The original petroleum jelly was advertised as “so pure you can eat it”. I can only guess that there must have been a woman somewhere who put that to the test.

    The original petroleum jelly was not Vaseline. Vaseline is the trademark of Unilever’s product, and they didn’t buy the recipe until well into the 20th century (1980’s), while the original, “so pure you can eat it”, was something else altogether. That product had the nick-name “Petrolatum”.

    When Unilever came out with “Vaseline”, it had been modified to make it more affordable for them to produce, and with a better odor so a new generation would buy it. When petroleum jelly was first discovered and made for home use, it didn’t smell very good, the way a lot of things didn’t, because in their natural state, some important ingredients stink. Even nowadays, some organic and natural product manufacturers have to add natural fragrances, or their customers won’t buy the stinky stuff. Women in the 19th century didn’t always have access to good smelling products, so they used the smelly jelly anyway. People of today can’t imagine that anyone would use a product that stinks, but 130 years ago, life wasn’t as convenient as it is now. They used to make soaps (including the best available) with animal fats, something which has only stopped in the last 30 or so years. The women whose beloved face soap now left their skin dried up, complained. What’s a company to do when today’s buyer won’t buy soap (or anything other than meat), with animal products as an ingredient? Too bad, the older generation says, because tallow was what kept their skin clean, without blackheads or pimples – or wrinkles. Same thing that happened with the ingredients of petrolatum. Later generations didn’t want anything smelly on their faces or hands, so out went the product that could heal small abrasions and minor cuts (think paper), and also kept their skin wrinkle free. You want a break from age and gravity? Bring back the real petroleum jelly – so pure, you can eat it!

    I wonder if any of the readers remember the beautiful skin of their female relatives who were born in the 1800’s? I do. Unless a woman hadn’t worn protection from the sun, women used to have skin that was beautiful, soft, and largely unaffected by wrinkles. They didn’t have hormone spots either. If they were light colored, they had “peaches and cream” skin. If they weren’t “peaches and cream”, they were still, “soft as soft can be”! I don’t know how I feel about the subject – with or without animal products. I can’t stand fur coats on humans, but I wear leather. I don’t eat animal products (I mean meat – I’m sure I eat all kinds of things vegans wouldn’t) but I have no judgement for those who do. And – I can’t stand wasting. If an animal is going to become something other than what it was born, then at least use every scrap – don’t disrespect it by using “only this part” and the rest is trash….. I believe the take away from this looooong note is, there is almost always more to a thing than one side. Dig around for all the sides and then make up your mind.

  5. You’d think that jut the word “Petroleum” on the product would keep people away from it! I know I sure thought it must be toxic… at that was at age 6!
    Yes, years ago it was recommended to smear some on the baby’s bottom rash before diapering, smear some on your lips, around your eyes to prevent cracking and wrinkling. Sunburn? Sure, keep the skin moisturized! Even for SEX!
    I don’t even use commercial lotions on my skin; if it’s in the lotion it will soon be in your blood system and organs. The only thing I’ve ever used on my skin is coconut oil — pure and natural.
    It’s hard to believe some people would put toxic products on their skin and think it’s safe. Then again, if advertised in a covert manner… there are some that are just as likely to put GASoline on their bodies as VASoline.

  6. Huge difference between Molasses, or wheat germ, etc…which are made from very edible and nutritious food products… and a byproduct of an extremely toxic fuel used to power combustion engines — don’t ya think?

  7. “The bottom consists of a gunky sludge and that is what is turned into Vaseline by distilling crude oil at very high temperatures. It’s left over gunk. Why not convince an entire planet that it’s a great skin aid!?”

    Molasses is a byproduct of sugar refining…
    Wheat germ is a byproduct of wheat milling…
    Orange and lemon oil are byproducts of citrus fruit being processed into juice…
    Sawdust is a byproduct of the lumber industry…
    Feathers are a byproduct of poultry processing…

    In each of these cases, the byproduct is important and useful, but secondary to the initial product. Because these things are byproducts, does that make them by all means bad??

  8. Good stuff to know! So crazy how we grow up with stuff we don’t really think twice about, and come to find out it’s crap. Yikes!!

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