The Truth About Petroleum Jelly

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
When you hear the words "petroleum jelly," your first thought is probably not a positive one. The oft-maligned ingredient has an unflattering origin story — according to OG petroleum-jelly brand Vaseline, it was discovered in 1859 by a chemist who noticed drillers using a gooey substance that stuck to drilling rigs to heal cuts and burns. The chemist experimented on the ingredient, originally known as "Rod Wax," and it eventually morphed into what we now know as petroleum jelly.

Now if smearing oil-rig refuse on your skin doesn't sound appealing, you are not alone. Pretty much every "green" publication, blog, and skin expert has denounced the ingredient as "toxic" and a carcinogen, despite there being no scientific evidence to back up those claims. Many in the science community consider this an old wives' internet rumor, dismissing it as malarkey.

So, with all of this conflicting info out there, we decided to break it down for you. Here, you'll find the full arguments from both sides of the debate. Court is now in session, with the honorable Refinery29 presiding.
The Prosecution (Anti-Petroleum)
As we mentioned before, the majority of petrolatum (petroleum's proper ingredient name) detractors are in the green community and their primary argument is that petroleum can contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which the EPA says are "created when products like coal, oil, gas, and garbage are burned but the burning process is not complete." The concern is that those chemicals, found in contaminated petrolatum, have indeed been found to "cause tumors in laboratory animals that were exposed to PAHs through their food, from breathing contaminated air, and when it was applied to their skin. When pregnant mice ate high doses of a PAH (benzo(a)pyrene), they experienced reproductive problems. In addition, the offspring of the pregnant mice showed birth defects and a decrease in their body weight." These effects, however, have not been seen in humans, says the EPA.

Many detractors also point to the fact that the European Union has banned petrolatum in beauty products and listed it as a carcinogen, leading critics to believe this is just another incidence of the FDA's failure to regulate the cosmetics industry.

Outside of the possible health effects, some beauty pros make the case that petroleum jelly isn't, in fact, an actual moisturizing ingredient. “While petroleum derivatives may seem like they give a moisturizing effect as an ingredient in lip balms, they do not actually moisturize," explains Francesco Clark, founder of botanically based beauty brand Clark's Botanicals. "Companies use it because it’s an inexpensive alternative; it creates a seal on the skin, like Saran wrap." Clark's Botanicals' Ultra Rich Lip Balm uses skin moisturizers "with proven, long-lasting effects": shea butter, coconut oil, sweet-almond oil, and marine collagen. Clark also posits that petrolatum actually "kicks out any active ingredients," meaning that if your balm contains any actives — like essential oils or vitamins — the petrolatum will make them null and void.

The Prosecution rests.
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The Defense (Pro-Petroleum)
All of those are very good points, however there are some nitty-gritty details that petroleum advocates say are important to keep in mind in regards to the above missives. While PAHs are definitely something to be aware of as a health hazard, the truth is that they are only found in unrefined petrolatum, an ingredient that is not sanctioned for cosmetic use by the E.U. or the FDA.

Most products, like Vaseline's lip balm, for instance, go through a rigorous purification process to remove all traces of harmful chemicals. Products that have been properly refined carry zero risk of cancer, and zero risk of reproductive or developmental toxicity, according to current scientific information. If you find a petroleum jelly that is not made by a reputable brand and/or approved by a cosmetics-safety organization, then yes, there is a chance of being exposed to harmful PAHs.

Adds respected holistic-health guru Andrew Weil, MD: "In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration monitors the purification of petrolatum to ensure against carcinogenic contamination. Furthermore, petroleum jelly has not been identified as a carcinogen by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration or the National Toxicology Program."

As for that E.U. ban? Cosmetic chemist and cofounder of The Beauty Brains Randy Schueller says it's not all-encompassing — the E.U. states that "the classification as a carcinogen need not apply if the full refining history is known and it can be shown that the substance from which it is produced is not a carcinogen.”

The origin of this particular ban, says Schueller, is that in the early 2000s, the E.U. was flooded with low-quality petroleum-jelly products — typically from Eastern European countries — that were dark yellow or brown, and did in fact contain PAHs. In an effort to protect consumers, the organization banned petrolatum for which you couldn't prove its refining process, product safety, and freedom from carcinogens.

The moisturizing aspect is a bit more complicated. Schueller maintains that petrolatum is, in fact, designated as a moisturizer — an occlusive — because it holds in moisture. "Petrolatum is one of the best, if not the best, moisturizing agents," he says. "Your lips always have water in the deeper layers of skin. When your lips are chapped, the barrier is compromised and you lose water too quickly. Occlusives are good because they slow down the excessive evaporation, and allow the upper layers of skin to retain more water and be more hydrated."

The Defense rests.

Verdict: As we said, there's no clear-cut answer. It comes down to personal choice. While there is no hard evidence or proof that petroleum jelly is in any way harmful to one's health, there is also absolutely nothing wrong with avoiding it. Basically, hydrate your lips however makes you happy and gives you peace of mind — because you are a special snowflake and you do what you want.

Court is adjourned.
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