What Is Petrolatum and Why Is It In My Beauty Products?

The reason you probably wouldn’t want to use any beauty products that contain petrolatum sits right there in the name: petroleum.

More commonly known as petroleum jelly, mineral oil jelly or mineral oil, petrolatum is a petrochemical derived from crude oil. If that wasn’t oily enough, petrolatum runs the risk of being contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), possible human carcinogens found in crude oil and its byproducts. The Environmental Working Group labels petrolatum as a low to moderate hazard, but with the potential for contamination from PAHs, it becomes high risk.

As usual, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regards this chemical as generally recognized as safe. It’s even allowed in food in small amounts. The European Union, which is typically ahead of the FDA when it comes to recognizing unsafe ingredients in beauty products, bans petrolatum for use in cosmetics unless the manufacturer can show a full refining history and prove that the petrolatum wasn’t produced from carcinogenic substances. Meaning, manufacturers have to prove the product isn’t contaminated by PAHs.

Is it good for skin?

Even without any PAHs contaminating it, the idea of slathering my skin with a super refined version of car fuel seems less than appealing. Yet, we’ve all probably done it. Bathroom cabinet staples like Vaseline, Neosporin, ChapStick and Vick’s VapoRub all boast petrolatum. Vaseline is actually pure petrolatum. It’s pretty dismaying. I still use (well, used) Neosporin, thinking it was a good healing salve for skin. Those aren’t the only products you’ll find petrolatum in either. Petrolatum lurks in all kinds of cosmetics from lotions and soaps to oils and lipsticks, even baby products. 

Often, petroleum jelly is touted for its super hydrating properties. It’s recommended to slather on dry elbows and knees and to rub on chapped noses and lips. Funnily enough, it actually does the opposite of hydrate. Petrolatum works as a seal to lock moisture to skin, but it does nothing to actually nourish and heal skin. It also prevents the body’s natural process of releasing toxins through the skin, which will cause bacteria to build up, leading to breakouts and skin irritation.

With regular use, petrolatum even breaks down the collagen in your skin. Collagen is what keeps your skin looking plump and youthful, meaning petrolatum can actually contribute to the appearance of aging. Not such a beautiful ingredient, huh?

Why it’s bad for the planet

As a byproduct of oil refinery, I’ve actually seen claims that petrolatum is a sustainable resource. But look at the fact that oil production, and our dependence on it, is far from sustainable and that idea is pretty laughable.

Better beauty options

Petrolatum may be cheap and widely available, but you don’t need to choose these petro products to nourish your skin. Skip the mineral oil and look for products made with nourishing oils from nature, like coconut oil, jojoba oil, almond oil or grapeseed oil. These oils will hydrate skin—inside and out —to actually heal and restore, not just make skin feel moisturized for a little while.

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image: jmtosses