Free shipping on all orders over $39


Petroleum Jelly and Vaseline - Uses and Safety

Reviewed by ErinP January 25, 2010 28 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.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest product reviews and save 10% on all orders over $50

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!

sign up for our newsletter

  • 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;-)

Join the discussion! Leave a comment below.

My Comment

Add a comment...

-or- Cancel Comment
* Required Fields
truth in aging's five best

Truth In Aging's Five Best

The very best to choose from for your skin concerns.

Read More

truth in aging videos

Truth In Aging Videos

Helpful how-tos and reviews from Marta and friends.

Watch Now

meet our contributors

Meet Our Contributors

The TIA community consists of our trusted reviewers.

Meet Them

be inspired

Be Inspired

Inspiring thoughts and women who are aging gracefully.

Read More