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“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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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!