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Is Petroleum Jelly Safe?

We've Used It for Years on Our Ashy Knees & Elbows, But Should We?

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Is Petroleum Jelly Safe?

A vintage Vaseline glass jar.

Photo: Courtesy of Vaseline

Petroleum jelly has been a staple in homes for over one hundred years for a myriad of uses. In recent years the safety of petroleum jelly (petrolatum) in cosmetics has come into question. The concern is with impurities in the manufacturing process, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are considered potentially carcinogenic and have links to breast cancer.

Origins of Petroleum Jelly

Petrolatum is found in crude oil and its by-products. It is believed to have been discovered when a substance was found clogging up the machinery on oil drilling sites. In 1859 a 22-year-old chemist from Brooklyn, NY named Robert Augustus Chesebrough went to Pennsylvania to investigate an oil well. Oil was a burgeoning industry and Chesebrough hoped to profit from it.

While investigating the site, Chesebrough observed that oil workers would smear this white gooey residue (that they called "rod wax") from the drills onto burns and cuts on their skin and it appeared to aid in the healing process. Chesebrough took samples back to New York and began experimenting with the substance until he was able to extract what would become petroleum jelly.

In 1870 he began marketing his Vaseline product. He marketed it as an oiling product for leather, a lubricant, and for medicinal uses for chapped skin, blisters, burns, sunburns, cuts and for keeping wounds clean by sealing them off. He even marketed petroleum jelly as an aid for rheumatism and as hair pomade (Vaseline Pomade). In the past women used it to beautify the complexion (Vaseline Cold Cream) and on eyebrows and eyelashes believing it would help them grow. (Today some dermatologists suggest that women allergic to mascara use petroleum jelly on lashes to make them appear thicker and longer.) Within ten years Vaseline was in nearly every household.

Consumer Concerns

In later years it was found that petroleum jelly did not actually heal cuts and wounds as previously thought and that it could actually trap bacteria in the skin and therefore should not be used on fresh burns. Other problems have been discovered through the years, including something called lipid pneumonia, when petroleum jelly is used around and inside the nose. Lipid pneumonia is an infection caused by the inhalation of fats.

Now petrolatum is regularly added to lotions and creams because of its ability to retain moisture. But some health issues have raised concerns. The major concern that has flooded the Internet with numerous pro and con articles, are PAHs, known contaminants in unrefined petrolatum. Many health professionals like Dr. Andrew Weil don’t believe consumers should be concerned with petroleum jelly causing cancer.

USP petroleum jelly is not the same as the unrefined petrolatum material that is said to be carcinogenic. Petrolatum in drugs, food and food packaging must meet FDA impurity restrictions. White petroleum jelly is a refined, purified extract of heavy waxes and paraffinic oils and USP white petroleum jelly has passed the safety standards of the FDA for use in food and cosmetics. Dr. Jim DeVito stated in an interview with KDVR-TV (Fox 31 Denver) that as long as the consumer “knows where it comes from and what procedures have been used to purify it--it’s totally safe.” The problem is that not all manufacturers choose to use refined petrolatum or use low-grade refinement processing, and there is the potential for PAHs to still be present. Consumers should look for USP white petroleum jelly (BP in Britain and Ph. Eur in Europe) which indicates the grade, where it was refined and that it meets specific purity standards, and go with trusted brands like Vaseline Petroleum Jelly. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has given Vaseline Petroleum Jelly a 0 rating, meaning that the organization considers it to be a low hazard. See more about the rating.

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.

Read about Petroleum Jelly Beauty Myths and Benefits.

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