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Petroleum Jelly on Your Face?

Petroleum Jelly on Your Face?

A woman I know recently told me that she uses Vaseline on her face every night—as in, petroleum jelly? I asked. Oh yes, she replied. I wondered about the wisdom behind intentionally slathering oneself with a petroleum product. Some online sleuthing yielded a YouTube video of Tyra Banks so feverishly cheerleading for her No. 1 beauty secret, Vaseline petroleum jelly, that I thought it was a farce.

Sure enough, people love petroleum jelly and use it for any number of personal care applications. Petroleum jelly, also called petrolatum and commonly known by its trademark name, Vaseline, was developed in the 1860s by a chemist from New York who upon visiting an oil rig, noticed the raw material of petrolatum (a gooey substance known as “rod wax”) stuck to the drilling rigs. After much experimentation, he developed a process to distill the rod wax into petrolatum.

In its pure form, petrolatum is considered safe, but its varied and unregulated manufacturing procedures make the goopy jelly vulnerable to contamination by foreign elements, which may or may not pose cancer risks or other health issues. There is generally no way to know how the petrolatum was manufactured.

Petrolatum is listed as having the lowest hazard concern (0 on a scale of 1-10) by the Environmental Working Group in their Skin Deep database, however, that score only corresponds to 9 percent of the information known about the product, since 91 percent of the information is not known about its ingredients. Which is to say that the ingredients in petrolatum haven’t been studied enough to confidently know one way or the other if it’s safe. White petroleum, the main ingredient of petrolatum, has not been assessed by an industry panel.

Petrolatum’s only listed concern is possible contamination from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are common contaminants in petrolatum. FDA restricts petrolatum in food to no more than 10 parts per million, and requires petrolatum used in food packaging or drugs to meet impurity restrictions for PAHs.

PAHs are linked to cancer (by 10 sources, including the EPA), reproductive/developmental toxicity (by the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, among other sources), endocrine disruption, persistence and bioaccumulation. They are banned for use in cosmetics in Europe and Canada.

In the United States, no requirement for refinement applies for petrolatum in personal care products. Hopefully most manufacturers likely choose refined petrolatum low in PAHs, but there is no guarantee.

Some product labels include the term “skin protectant” in parentheses after the petrolatum listing, an indication that the petrolatum has been refined and meets FDA requirements for drug applications. But in most cases a consumer buying a product containing petrolatum has no way of knowing if the ingredient is low in carcinogenic PAHs or not.

So, the jury’s still out on this one, kind of. For me, the stuff is just kind of gross, I’d much rather make a homemade olive oil and beeswax non-petroleum jelly or use one of these plant-based cosmetic oils on my face instead.

Read more: Beauty, Skin Care, , , ,

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Melissa Breyer

Melissa Breyer is a writer and editor with a background in sustainable living, specializing in food, science and design. She is the co-author of True Food (National Geographic) and has edited and written for regional and international books and periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine. Melissa lives in Brooklyn, NY.


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11:37PM PST on Dec 5, 2012

I always use it on my lips, seems too heavy for your face, plus the unknown ingredients now worry me.

10:54PM PST on Dec 5, 2012

interesting article. i have read that marilyn monroe also used vaseline... i guess i have to try it too..

10:05AM PDT on Oct 7, 2012

its usually greasy and sticky, so i only use it for my lips. will see one of these days if im "brave enough" to try putting it on my entire face!

10:48AM PST on Mar 5, 2012


10:44AM PST on Mar 5, 2012

Glad I found this article, thank you for the useful info

4:50PM PDT on Oct 15, 2011

I just had surgery performed on my face for skin cancer. The surgeon gave me 2 small packs of white petroleum jelly to put on the wound to keep it moist. It also helps to cover the ugly scar I will have for a month. I believe this says it all.

10:05AM PDT on Apr 28, 2011

I have used vaseline for years. I'm 53 years old and it's the only facial application that I've used since I was a younger adult. I take a small amount, rub it in my hands then apply to my face in an upward, outward motion with extra concentration under my eyes....I've received numerous compliments and inquiries regarding my smooth skin...I've had an awesome experience; ponder this; it's used on babies; their skin is the most sensitive, delicate, and pure. Have a blessed journey using vaseline. (if your skin rejects it; break outs etc. then stop)

4:41AM PST on Feb 21, 2011

Thanks for the article.

5:30PM PST on Feb 17, 2011


3:24PM PDT on Aug 30, 2010

I have read about using petroleum jelly on the skin. I will NEVER apply it to my face and neck. I do use it on my lips or hands and feet when needed. I don't care what anyone says. If you are prone to acne you are in for a big mess if you apply petroleum to your face. It is a cheap filler is all it is.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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Mmmm looks delicious. I'd love to try some of these. Mayhaps I shall!

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