Should you use petroleum jelly?

There’s hardly anybody who has not used petroleum jelly at some time or the other, for some reason or the other. People use it as a lip balm and a moisturizer, as a palliative for minor cuts and burns, and as the first level of defence against chapped skin. However, is it safe to use it?

But first, what is petroleum jelly? It is a purified mixture of semi-solid hydrocarbons derived from petroleum. Originally found coating the bottom of oil rigs in the mid-1800s, it is a byproduct of oil refining, and is more commonly known by its brand name, Vaseline, which is owned by the Anglo-Dutch company, Unilever.

The first person to discover petroleum jelly, and its uses, was Robert Augustus Chesebrough (January 9, 1837-September 8, 1933), an American chemist. He set up Chesebrough Manufacturing Company that made and marketed petroleum jelly under the Vaseline brand name, until his company was purchased by Unilever in 1987.

Though people have been using petroleum jelly for just about everything, studies have revealed that it may not be all that safe. Here’s why you might be better off eschewing this product.

It is likely to be carcinogenic

The crude version of petroleum jelly was first discovered on an oil rig. In its original form, it is a paraffin-like substance, thick and dark. The stuff you use is the refined, distilled version that is colourless and odorless. But the fact remains that it is derived from a mixture of hydrocarbons. Chances are high that petroleum jelly will be contaminated by Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs).

PAHs can enter the body via your skin. Once in the body, they are stored in the kidneys and the liver. They can undergo a transformation within your body, and if that happens, the resultant substances are harmful to human health. There are more than 100 types of PAHs, out of which at least 15 are strongly suspected to be carcinogens.

It creates a barrier on the skin

Petroleum jelly is an occlusive agent, that is, it physically prevents or retards water loss. It can, thus, counteract dryness. Petroleum jelly acts like a barrier, trapping moisture and cutting transepidermal water loss by as much as 98 per cent. It also creates a protective layer against bacteria and other pathogens.

The problem is that it coats the skin and does not let it breathe. In simple terms, it shuts the skin to everything, trapping in whatever is already there. Using petroleum jelly indiscriminately might even worsen infections as it creates a breeding ground for pathogens by holding them in.

It does not really nourish your skin

While you might think that this very reasonably-priced product is an ideal remedy for so many problems, the fact remains that it does not really have medicinal or healing properties. It is, no doubt, a very effective occlusive agent, but it is not a humectant, that is, it does not deliver moisture from outside to the skin, or even an emollient, that is, it does not rehydrate and soften skin.

In the end, you need not dump your petroleum jelly jar into the nearest bin, you will do well to use it only sparingly.


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