It's good to be versatile, but we can't all have the range of Barbra Streisand, can we? Sometimes it's best to stick to just one calling — Mariah Carey has the voice of an angel but the acting chops of, well, Mariah Carey in Glitter, and no matter how good a Mexican restaurant might be, you wouldn't necessarily want to get your sushi from it. It follows that the same words you'd expect to see in a breaking-news report about a catastrophic oil spill should not be in the same sentence, let alone the same ingredients list, as your skin care — but you'll see petroleum and its most common cosmetic byproducts, like mineral oil and petrolatum, used both ways.
You can't talk about this stuff without first talking about where it comes from: Mineral oil and petrolatum — perhaps best known under the brand Vaseline, which was recently named the world's #1 hand and body-care brand — both come from petroleum, a naturally-occurring liquid found beneath the Earth's surface that is the product of large quantities of dead organisms buried beneath sedimentary rock and subjected to intense heat and pressure over millennia. It's surfaced by drilling (the cause of much environmental concern), and the "crude oil" is then refined and converted into many, many different things — gasoline, various types of fuel, lubricant for machinery, and countless chemicals, plastics, and synthetic materials.
Petrolatum, often called petroleum jelly in cosmetics, is its semi-solid state; the kind of mineral oil you'll see in beauty products is the liquid's refined synthetic state. Both have a bad rap, and are frequently found on skin-care shit lists along with parabens, sulfates, and artificial fragrance, due in part to a domino effect of misinformation. Anything derived from petroleum, "green" beauty connoisseurs will tell you, comes with a whole host of carcinogenic side effects. Which is true, if you're using the crude, unrefined industrial-grade stuff to moisturize your chapped lips — and unless you're filling up Mason jars from an oil rig, you definitely aren't. Those carcinogens are filtered out by a stringent purification process that, because petrolatum is approved as a food additive and as an over-the-counter skin protectant, is closely monitored by the Food & Drug Administration.
"It's the industrial-grade mineral oil that gives the cosmetic-grade oil a bad name," says dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD. "The refined versions that are commonly used in skin-care products are safe and effective." Mineral oil, Dr. Zeichner says, is calming, hydrating, and popular because it rarely triggers skin allergies; white petrolatum is a skin protectant and occlusive ingredient used in lotions and salves to help skin retain moisture. On a superficial level, cosmetic-grade petrolatum won't even clog your pores — it's non-comedogenic, and a dot of Vaseline applied over a large, inflamed, or raw (i.e. picked-at) pimple can actually help protect skin and give it a chance to heal. (Mineral oil, however, can clog pores, which is why Dr. Zeichner recommends avoiding it if you're acne-prone.)
And so there is no dirty secret about mineral oil or petroleum jelly, no bamboozling on behalf of prestige companies who are putting cheap, potentially cancer-causing fossil-fuel byproducts in your fancy moisturizer and trying to pass them off as safe and effective hydrators. They are safe, they are effective, and look — the bottom line is that, no, they are not environmentally sustainable ingredients, but they are a teeny-tiny byproduct of a massive industry. You could stop production of all cosmetic-grade mineral oil and petrolatum products right here, right now, and we'd still have the oil industry as it stands.
That's terrible news for the environment, but on the bright side, if you've always had a hard time reckoning your desire for a greener planet with your love of Vaseline, you're off the hook. For now.