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Petroleum Jelly and Vaseline - Uses and Safety

January 25, 2010 Reviewed by AgelessJen 31 Comments

“It’s a dry cold!” seems to be the motto of the Alaskan winter. With temperatures dropping to -40 on a regular basis and almost no humidity in the air, the ‘dry cold’ that Alaskans promote as a positive weather trend has been less than comforting as I've watched it wreak havoc on my skin. After slathering myself in a variety of lotions, body butters, baby oils, and even olive oil (a local remedy), I have found that the best defense against these hazardous conditions is the tried and true, faithful jar of Vaseline 100% Petroleum Jelly ($2.28).

However, there seems to be concerns about the safety of petroleum in cosmetics. So was I on a slippery slope with my remedy or onto a winner with the tried and true? Before I try to answer that, here's what I've been using and how.

Uses for Vaseline Petroleum Jelly

I do like a lot of Vaseline’s other lotions, but the 100% Pure Petroleum Jelly has really saved my skin this winter. Although there are many uses for Vaseline, from the expected applications to the quite unconventional (check out this list from Reader's Digest for some great ideas!) I’ve settled into a routine that I believe covers most bases:

• Apply to lips, liberally, frequently, many times a day (added bonus: it’s glossy!)
• Apply to cuticles three times daily, rubbing any remaining Vaseline into dry hands, focusing on knuckles (soaks right in and works much better than any hand lotion I’ve found)
• Coat feet (from heel to toe) in thin layer, then cover with socks, preferably before bed (has cut down on my pumicing considerably)
• Massage into elbows and knees, after shower or bath (just do it, you’ll appreciate the difference)

What Is In Vaseline? Exactly What Is Petroleum Jelly?

As you can imagine, this requires me to keep Vaseline jars of varying sizes in my bedroom, bathroom, purse, and office. After awhile, I began to wonder what was in that little jar of magic. Petroleum Jelly? Is it the same as petrolatum? And what does the USP stand for, in “100% Petroleum Jelly USP”? A quick search of “Vaseline ingredients” brought up a frightening claim … that my Vaseline, my key to smooth skin and supple lips in the tundra, may cause cancer. Refusing to simply abandon my favorite, and incredibly affordable, winter accessory, I put my Ingredients Editor hat on and went in search of the truth.

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According to Unilever, petroleum jelly - the only ingredient in your old-fashioned jar of Vaseline - was discovered by a New York chemist in the 1860s and first marketed to the public as Vaseline Petroleum Jelly in 1870. Petroleum jelly, also known as petrolatum or soft paraffin, is a mix of mineral oils, paraffin, and microcrystalline waxes. With a melting point of just above 98.6 degrees, it basically melts into the skin, filling the gaps in the lipid barrier. It’s such a wonderful moisturizer because it forms an occlusive barrier, keeping skin from naturally losing moisture to evaporation – like in extremely dry Alaskan climates – and also serves as a protective barrier, keeping harsh cold weather and wind out. That explains why I’ve become addicted to this otherwise unremarkable looking product! But there was still the disheartening association with carcinogens, and the European Union’s ‘ban’ on petrolatum that I had to figure out before I could just keep slathering Vaseline onto my body in startling quantities.

Is Petroleum Jelly Safe?

Ultimately, petrolatum (petroleum jelly) is a by-product from oil production. It is formed as a de-waxing paraffinic residual oil, and contains crystalline and liquid hydrocarbons. It is refined into the petroleum jelly that I know and love through very specific processes. This refining is done by a number of sources, and leads to the USP notation I alluded to earlier. There are three grades of petrolatum: USP (United States Pharmacopeia), BP (British Pharmacopeia) and Ph. Eur. (Pharmacopeia Europa). These abbreviations simply indicate where the petrolatum was refined (Wikipedia).

This refining is also the key to the carcinogenic classification by the European Union in its ‘Dangerous Substance Directive.’ Because petrolatum is derived from oil, it needs to be refined. Some of the methods for this refining, and some methods of petrolatum production, have been shown to contain hazardous, toxic or carcinogenic components. One of the most notable contaminants, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PHAs, have been linked to cancer, and you can read more about that here. However, these contamints can be removed in the refining process. Therefore, the product itself is not carcinogenic, never has been, and never will be if handled properly. The Cosmetics Directive of the European Union does recognize this, and does not actually ban petrolatum products outright. Not at all. And many products manufactured and sold in the European Union do contain petrolatum. All that the European Union’s restrictions require is that the “full refining history is known and it can be shown that the substance from which it is produced is not a carcinogen.” If the petrolatum meets these standards, it is not classified as a carcinogen by the European Union because it is known to be free of carcinogenic contaminants.

These same standards of purification are upheld in the United States as well, but are monitored by the FDA. The FDA approves petrolatum as a direct and indirect food additive (at restricted levels), and therefore monitors its purification closely to ensure that there are no carcinogenic contaminants. The Cosmetics Database considers petrolatum a low hazard to moderate hazard ingredient based on usage, and notes the same concerns about contamination and carcinogenic links as addressed above, but also notes the FDA’s handling of the safety concerns. The Material Safety Data Sheet for petrolatum, or more specifically, petroleum jelly in this case, specifically notes OSHA, IARC and NTP all find it to be non-carcinogenic. Add to all of this above research that I could find no scientific studies actually link petrolatum, by any of its names, to cancer. The process, yes; contaminated petrolatum, yes. But well-produced, carefully refined petrolatum with a nice lineage? Not a cancer link to be found.

Vaseline Petroleum Jelly Uses and Safety: Takeaways

My final verdict? Vaseline is safe to use, in any climate, and on any body part, assuming it’s external (there are some ugly side effects from ingesting petrolatum, that tend to include diarrhea and other stomach ailments … so don’t eat it), and assuming its refining process has been reviewed and approved. It’s a great moisturizer and wound healer, although it should not be used on fresh burns, or fresh sunburn, as it can actually trap heat in the skin and worsen the condition. As long as your petrolatum or petroleum jelly has been manufactured by a trusted brand, or if it’s as pure jelly in a Vaseline jar, enjoy its moisturizing and healing properties!

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  • March 4, 2018

    by Marta

    Thanks Megs. The link has now been updated.

  • March 4, 2018

    by Megs

    Link in your story re carcinogenic health study goes to an error page. It does not give further information to investigate ??

  • December 17, 2017

    by Shella

    A well-known Dutch dermatologist Dr. Jetskr Ultee, who has produced her own pure facial creams after years of research;; also agrees Vaseline is safe and she uses it a lot in the winter.

  • June 19, 2015

    by Kat

    So you're pretty much saying you trust the FDA to tell you that something is safe. That to me doesn't seem very wise especially concerning a product that is derived from something that when in its natural state is highly toxic. Often times the FDA approves things by what they consider "safe amounts" and these studies are never conducted long enough to reveal the real truth. Do they know what individual threshold level are for exposure to some of these products and have they taken into account that some people use this stuff daily on their skin over the course of their lifetime which could slowly build up to toxic levels? Do they know what other products these people use in conjunction with petroleum products which may cause contradictions resulting in something that isn't rated as toxic to become toxic? I don't think these products are as safe as you are lead to believe. I try and stay away from any product that is derived from a toxic substance. We're already exposed to so much bad stuff out there why choose to apply it to your skin...

  • June 17, 2015

    by nicole

    So is vaseline for sure safe seeing all these different stores based on weither Equate Petroleum Jelly is safe or not.. please let me know i would like to test it for the Cosmetics Usage

  • February 11, 2015

    by Robin

    I had a redness on the skin around my lips and I read reviews online about people using Aquaphor Healing Ointment Advanced Therapy. I tried a small tube and the redness went away in about a week. This product is mostly petrolatum. I originally tried using Vaseline Jelly but I didn't see an improvement so I tried the Aquaphor. So I think the Aquaphor has something special in it that worked for me. So I bought a big jar of the Aquaphor & I apply it on my lips every day. Then recently I got the redness again and remembered that I just tried a new facial moisturizer and apparently had an allergic reaction to it. I washed my face & applied my Aquaphor. The redness was gone in a few days! I think this Aquaphor is amazing!!! :)

  • January 8, 2015

    by selena

    I am using it and was searching how it works.
    I saw cancer as a risk and got scared now this made me feel better.

  • December 10, 2014

    by firdous

    Thnq so much I love vasline n it helpd me 2 get rid f my pimples.. far better dan an expensive creamz;-)

  • May 26, 2014

    by Julia

    I used Vaseline on painful cracked nipples, when breast feeding. It was very effective, and more so than anything else. There was no residue to cause concern of being ingested. My children are now in their 20s; there seems to have been no negative effects.

  • July 15, 2013

    by deb

    wouldn't it be wiser to use an alternative without any petroleum products in it such as coconut oil? i cook with it, especially nice for coating cast iron skillets, and rub the remainder on my hands and arms. also, olive oil is a natural alternative for moisturizing. aloe has nice healing properties too.

  • April 27, 2013

    by Michele Watson

    I have just had my local phamacist tell me that vaseline is the best feedback he has had on customers with Psoriasis! I spend about $23 a week on a small tube of another product on my son who has this. I am now trying vaseline and will report back!

  • April 26, 2013

    by Joann

    THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS! I have been on an attempting to reduce toxins kick since having a baby and was debating whether I should be using aquaphor and/or Vaseline on either of us. This really put me at ease!

  • March 25, 2013

    by Pat McRoberts

    And, at stores like Whole Foods we can buy Unpetrolium jelly for use on our faces and lips.

  • March 25, 2013

    by Tianna Metzger

    I do not agree with this. Petrolatum is a cancer causing toxic chemical

  • March 25, 2013

    by Marta

    Hi Tianna, thank you for your comment. Please note that I have published it in lower case. All capitals with a dozen exclamation marks is the equivalent of yelling. You are most welcome to join the debate but we ask all comers to please respect others by remaining polite and calm.

  • January 19, 2013

    by Patricia

    Wish I'd read this earlier. I literally just came home from the drug store with a thirty dollar bottle of lotion. Could've saved myself a bundle. It's also 14 degrees outside!

  • October 1, 2012

    by JoAnn

    Just like, Erin, the author of this article, mentioned that she applied Vaseline "liberally, frequently, many times a day", my sister and I have used Vaseline on our lips every single day, several times a day for dry lips and before bed for literally years. Would this be considered "ingesting" since we both lick our lips ... then we need to re-apply it. Isn't "licking our lips" the same as "ingesting" it? Are we doing harm to our bodies?

  • September 16, 2012

    by Laverne

    Is there suppose to be a use by date on the jars of petroleum jelly??? Mine has no date and I was wondering how long is a jar good for?

  • August 16, 2012

    by Gloria

    I am using Vaseline on my hands and feet and love it. It's a great product.
    Thank you for all your homework...

  • June 17, 2012

    by Katy

    Thanks so much for this it's put my mind at rest x

  • May 29, 2012

    by Marta

    Hi Caryl, a teaspoon of olive oil might do the trick - and be a lot healthier.

  • May 28, 2012

    by Caryl Baker

    My dog's veterinarian told me to give my dog a teaspoonful of vaseline a day to try to correct an abdominal problem she has. I have cats and my dog thinks it is great to eat any cat hair she can find. So, funny as it may sound, she has a hairball problem. Anything I have read about vaseline says NOT to ingest it. HELP!

  • July 25, 2011

    by kerrie

    while all this is very intersting . noone pointed out the fact that for years we have been slathering this stuff on our baby's bottoms for dipper rash to no avail and will proberbly continue to do so . whatsw good for baby is good for mommy.

  • June 27, 2011

    by Justd

    I grew up using vaseline as a followup to body lotion after bathing. It helps retain moisture and keeps my skin soft as well. I think as a woman of color it's a product that has been in my life for as long as I can recall and it's uses have evolved to accommodate my many needs as I have matured. I have never used it above my neck, nor will I, but it is a must staple among my beauty aids!

  • June 27, 2011

    by NoeyD77

    This topic has intrigued me for some time. Biologically speaking petrolatum/petroleum jelly/Vaseline is not bio-identical to our own skin's lipids, so acne prone individuals skin may reject and breakout, however it is an excellent barrier to keep in moisture already present in the skin.

    I have read several articles about how Vaseline has been the secret beauty product to many women, specifically of the african-american race. A nurse was interviewed by Good Morning America and she was asked what her beauty secret was, and she said simply Vaseline. The woman literally looked liked she was in her late 30's when she was actually in her 60's!

    BTW the same situation has happened with Crisco! Yup the cooking stuff! Somebody stated on another beauty board that its simplu hydrogenated vegetable oil which is present in a lot of face creams, so they went bonkers over it. Make me

  • June 27, 2011

    by Marta

    Well Josh, you clearly are not reading it as this article clearly says: "The Cosmetics Directive of the European Union does recognize this, and does not actually ban petrolatum products outright. Not at all."

    And it goes on to say: "And many products manufactured and sold in the European Union do contain petrolatum. All that the European Union’s restrictions require is that the “full refining history is known and it can be shown that the substance from which it is produced is not a carcinogen.” If the petrolatum meets these standards, it is not classified as a carcinogen by the European Union because it is known to be free of carcinogenic contaminants."

  • June 27, 2011

    by Josh

    I must give up reading through Truth in Aging! WHERE is the truth? Petrolatum has NOT (now or in the past) been banned in the European Union. Where this kind of mis-information comes from is a complete mystery to me.

  • February 4, 2010

    by karolyn

    I was so happy to read this article as I sometimes find that vaseline is the only thing I can put on my reactive skin without making matters worse.

    But what about the claim that organic types make, that your skin can get habituated to petroleum jellies and waxes and lose its ability its inherent moisture and/or ability to regulate its own moisture content. Any take on that?

  • January 29, 2010

    by Jan

    Wonderufl review! Thanks so much - it's been a staple in my medicine cabinet all my I'll put it to further good use and perhaps save a few penneys instead of spending unwisely on non-performing moisterizers.

  • January 25, 2010

    by Jaysie

    This is excellent information and makes the case for buying the American staple, Vaseline. I wonder if you discovered any info on how to identify the source of the 'petrolatum' found on many beauty product ingredient lists. One of my pet peeves is that the FDA does not require country-of-origin info for ingredients in food, toiletries, etc. A lot of companies use cheaply sourced ingredients and we have no way of knowing where they came from.

  • January 25, 2010

    by Arandjel

    Brilliant! Thank you, Erin, for setting the record straight on petroleum jelly. :)

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