What's Up With Petrolatum?

Illustration for article titled What's Up With Petrolatum?

“What’s Up With...?” is a regular feature exploring fearsome ingredients in beauty products. If there’s one you’re curious about/scared of, leave us a comment and we’ll try to suss it out.


We all have those moments when we realize we have crossed the threshold from “cool” to “motherhood.” For me, the Saturday I whipped out a jar of Vaseline at the park and rubbed it on the chapped cheeks of all the toddlers around me, was that day. My dad was sitting there watching in awe. “What are you doing?” He asked.

“Their cheeks are chapped, I was just…” I looked in my bag—snacks, band aids, a jar of Vaseline. I was so hardcore mom at that moment that even my father, who had eight kids, couldn’t handle it.

“Shut up,” I told him. “Vaseline is handy.”

I’m not alone in my fondness for Vaseline, or petroleum jelly if you buy the off-brands (and I do, because I’m cheap). On her self-titled show, Tyra Banks once gave away jars of Vaseline studded with Swarovski crystals. The internet abounds with cures, remedies and DIY tips that center around this viscous goop. My doctor suggests it for almost any skin problem my kids have (and they have a few). My 86-year-old neighbor swallows some to cure her constipation (not recommended, by the way) and carries a jar of it always. Once, when I took my daughter trick-or-treating at my neighbor’s house, she put in my daughter’s bag a used notepad of paper from a drug company, half a banana and a small jar of Vaseline. I ditched the others, kept the Vaseline.

But Vaseline is more than just the go-to cure for octogenarians in the Midwest. Petrolatum, the chemical name for what we call Vaseline, is also used in make-up, hair care products, baby products and food. Yes, that’s right, food. The FDA lists its uses as a lubricant in bakery products and a “release agent” in dehydrated foods and egg white solids.

My release agent is whiskey, but you do you, food.

To understand a little bit about why petrolatum is so ubiquitous, you have to understand its history. And it’s a good history. In 1859, Robert Augustus Chesebrough decided he wanted nothing to do with the family dry goods business. He left his home in Brooklyn with the promise of making his fortune in oil. He traveled to Pennsylvania to a working oil well. There, Chesebrough, noticed the oil rigs kept breaking down because of “rod wax.” This wax was more like a jelly and it collected on the oil machinery and on the sides of the wells. The oil workers would scrape it off and use it on their cuts, burns and bruises. They swore by it.


Chesebrough brought some of this goo home and began experimenting with it on himself, because the 1800s were the good old days when anyone would just rub anything all over their body. He gave himself cuts and burns and would rub the wax on himself and track the healing process. After 5 years of refining and experimentation, Chesebrough filed a patent for Vaseline. Allegedly, Chesebrough came up with the name Vaseline by combining the German word for water “vasser” and the Greek word for Olive oil “oleon.”

Chesebrough’s original patent document sheds some light on how he refined his product.


The substance from which vaseline is made is the residuum of petroleum left in the still after the greater part of the petroleum has been distilled off. Distillation is now conducted in’ two ways—first, by applying to the still suificient [sic] heat to vaporize all the oil therein down to the residuum; and second, by distilling under a vacuum, according to what is known as the vacuum process, by which less heat is required than in the ordinary way. The residuum left in the still by the vacuum process is greater in amount and better in quality than that produced by the old method, owing to its having been subjected to much less heat and to not having been run down so low in the still. The residuum produced by the vacuum process makes, therefore, a better quality of Vaseline than that produced by the old process, and is more easily and cheaply refined by filtration through bone-black, but the products from both are identical in properties and appearance.

Is that clear? He basically boils it down and filters it. The patent said he filtered it through bone black, which is a porous material made from burning up animal bones. Don’t worry, the Vaseline company has refined the process since then.


Chesebrough marketed his product by driving through cities, burning himself and then applying Vaseline on his wounds. And it worked. People began using Vaseline for everything and on everything—from food preservatives to baby rash cream. Commander Robert Peary brought Vaseline on his famed trip to Antarctica because it wouldn’t freeze. And the first modern mascara was made up of coal dust and Vaseline, concocted by a chemist who named it after his sister Mabel. This chemist then founded the make-up company Maybeline. (Did I just blow your mind?)


Okay, but what actually is petrolatum? Well, besides being the oil scum they scrap off the sides of wells, petrolatum is just hydrocarbons — strings and strings of hydrocarbons. That is it, just hydrogen and carbon mixed together.

Well, fine, it is a little bit more than that. Unrefined petrolatum has something called polycyclic aromatic hyrocarbons (PAH). Which yes, are hydrocarbons, but these hydrocarbons have rings. Depending on the structure of the rings, these PAHs can be deadly. There are some nontoxic PAHs, to be sure. The ones who sit in Connecticut and lament that their poisonous cousins are ruining the family name. But for the most part, PAHs are bad and cause cancer. And the governments of the Western world are pretty united on this. In the US and Europe, toxic PAHs are banned. And yes, you can find them in unrefined petrolatum.


But PAHs and other contaminants are filtered out of petrolatum during the purification process. And because petrolatum is approved as a food additive, it’s monitored by the FDA. I spoke with Dr. Linda Loretz the Chief Toxicologist for the Personal Care Products Council, which yes, is industry-run, but stick with me for a moment. Dr. Loretz noted that the FDA closely monitors products with petrolatum.

And additional research with consumer safety groups, dug up very little concern about petrolatum. A Health Canada site noted that there are no reports of unacceptable levels of impurities in petrolatum. As I researched, I did read reports of petrolatum being banned in the European Union, but all of those reports were a tad overblown. Petrolatum is not banned for use in the EU exactly. What happened was that for a time, European countries had an onslaught of unrefined petrolatum products cluttering their shelves. So, in 2004 the EU labeled petrolatum a carcinogen with this language, “except if the full refining history is known and it can be shown that the substance from which it is produced is not a carcinogen.” So, a nicely refined petrolatum, with a good history has no problems, not even in Europe.


Another possible negative of Vaseline is the environmental impact. I asked Dr. Loretz if Vaseline was just a by-product of oil drilling or if wells were dug specifically for the creation of Vaseline and she noted that as far as she knew, petrolatum was made as a by-product of oil drilling. I did my best to verify her information and as far as I can tell it is true. Vaseline is just a minor by-product of the oil industry. If everyone stopped buying Vaseline right now, we’d still have oil wells. And as my husband (who, it should be known is a white man and loves capitalism), pointed out it’s almost good environmental policy to use Vaseline because otherwise all that “rod wax” becomes waste. Maybe. I don’t know if I buy that logic. But okay.

It is worth noting that there is synthetic petrolatum which is made of paraffin wax. But paraffin wax is also an oil by-product made of hydrocarbons. So, come on.


Bottom line: Grease up, greasers.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.



I’m super sensitive/allergic to petroleum (thanks, body!), so therefore petroleum jelly is a huge NO GO in my life. Anyone have petroleum free substitutes?