Monday, January 10, 2011

Petrolatum - Friend or Foe?

Just before our Christmas vacation to the wonderful snowy land that is Michigan, I dug out my heavy winter coat (which had been in a box for two years, thank you Florida). Before sending it to be dry cleaned, I looked inside the pockets and to my surprise there were two items, a $20 bill (I love finding money that I have forgotten about) and a tube of Vaseline Lip Therapy lip balm. I recall buying the lib balm at a gas station out of desperation on our moving trip down to FL. Living in Michigan for me meant having to deal with dry chapped lips for almost all of winter. I used to buy Burt's Bees lip balm but that is not always an option, so I settled for this balm, which claimed to "protect dry, chapped lips" with it's "advanced formula".

I probably didn't even read the ingredient list. As a scientist, when I read "Advanced Formula" I have certain expectations. These expectations are almost never met outside the laboratory so I have learned to lower my expectations as a normal civilian. Still, I was shocked to read the ingredient list. "Active Ingredient: White petrolatum USP (100%)". So this "advanced" formula contains ONE chemical: Petrolatum! I thought to myself: WHAT THE WHAT? how is the company even allowed to make such claims? Petrolatum is KNOWN to cause further drying and damage to the skin! Even more importantly, how could I, an educated person who cares about my health, ever purchase this item???? I almost threw it away in shame but after telling the story to a couple of friends, I decided I should use it to help clear up some misinformation about this mystery substance petrolatum.

Here I will give you only the facts, in bullet points, because frankly you don't have all day!

What is it?
  • Petrolatum is also known as white petrolatum, petroleum Jelly or soft paraffin.
  • As the name suggests, it is a petrochemical (derived from oil).
  • It was discovered in a US oil rig and refined by Robert Chesebrough, a chemist who later founded the Vaseline company.
  • Its molecular structure is a non-polar hydrocarbon, which renders it very hydrophobic (water repelling).
The Good:
  • Because of its hydrophobic nature, petrolatum does not get absorbed but forms a layer of film (a barrier) on the skin and does not allow most things to pass through.
  • This barrier is exactly why the FDA has approved petrolatum as a "skin protectant." Placing petrolatum on a cut can prevent bacteria and dirt from penetrating the wound and decreased the chance of infection (much like a band aid).
  • This barrier can also keep skin hydrated by preventing evaporation of the skin's natural moisture.
  • Petrolatum is also very stable (although it is flammable) and easy to integrate into skin care formulas.
  • It is CHEAP and profitable! The 10g tube of lip balm (100% petrolatum) sells for $2 while I can buy it in bulk for $6/kg, which means only 6 cents for the 10g tube.
The Bad:
  • The barrier formed on the skin by petrolatum can be a double edged sword. If it can prevent evaporation of moisture from the skin, it also prevents absorption of moisture. If it can keep bacteria out, it can also trap bacteria in, etc.
  • The barrier blocks your pores and prevents proper detoxification.
  • The barrier prevents absorption of essential nutrients, vitamins and anti-oxidants by the skin, leading to under-nourished and unhealthy skin. This is why long-term use of petrochemicals can actually cause breakouts and leads to dry, cracked and damaged skin.
  • It is simply a barrier, it does nothing to nourish or promote the health of your skin.
The Ugly:
  • Petrolatum has been proposed by various studies to be a carcinogen (cancer causing agent). As a scientist, I can tell you that just about EVERYTHING has been shown by a couple of studies to be a carcinogen! I am not defending petrolatum, but there is just not enough evidence to label it as a known carcinogen (though it wouldn't be the least bit surprising that rubbing petroleum-based compounds all over one's body would be hazardous!)
  • There is no general consensus on just HOW bad petrolatum is for you. For example, it has been banned for use in cosmetics in the European Union but the environmental working group gives petrolatum a non-toxic score of 2 (scale of 0-10, 10 being most toxic).
  • A more concerning fact to me is that petrolatum is often contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are KNOWN carcinogens (not much debate on this one, pretty much everyone agrees!). Sadly, the FDA has no rules regarding the purity of petrolatum so you never know if you are putting PAHs on your body or not!
Why care about petrolatum?
  • One of every 14 skin care products on the market contains petrolatum. So you probably DO use it, unless you carefully filter.
  • Surprisingly, 40 percent of all baby lotions and oils use petrolatum so if you have kids, pay attention!
  • Luckily, FDA restricts petrolatum in food to no more than 10 parts per million (0.001%) so at least you don't have to worry about it in food items (although you DO ingest lip balm).
The Verdict:
  • Don't use it! Petrolatum is NOT your friend! Do you know how many healthy alternatives there are to petrochemicals? Just about any natural oil or wax will have the benefits of petrolatum (and much much more) without the harm. I just can not think of any good reason people choose petroleum-based skin care. Probably the same reason I bought the Vaseline lip balm: no time to think about it and it claims to protect with its advanced formula. Well, now you know. So next time you're at the store and grab a lotion or lip balm and see "petrolatum" in the ingredient list, just put it back down and reach for something else.
These reasons are why you will NEVER find petrochemicals in any hydrOtion products. Instead, we use the most skin-compatible natural oils and butters that deliver nutrients while they soften your skin and lips.

--Dr. B of hydrOtion


  1. Great info Bahareh! Thanks! I was actually just wondering about this and you answered all my questions and more!

  2. Thanks. I'm going to check out the hydrOtion.

  3. Thanks for the well-written article. Do you have an alternative, natural skin barrier you can recommend?

  4. This really helped me with a research project I am working on! great information.