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.
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