Petroleum jelly, the main ingredient in Vaseline®, is often used in beauty products and even on its own to help fix dry skin problems. While it does seem to help at first, the longer-term effects of using Vaseline aren’t very promising.
While many people choose Vaseline for its low cost, no scent and skin-softening properties, they aren’t aware of the steps taken to create the product in the first place.
What is Petroleum Jelly?
Petroleum jelly (or petrolatum) is a by-product of the oil refining process. It is essentially a mixture of the hydrocarbons obtained from petroleum – you know, the same stuff used in our cars and lawn mowers.
Petroleum jelly was originally found in the bottom of oil rigs and is further refined for use in the beauty industry. While packaging and safety info claim that all harmful components are removed before use in personal care products, some sources argue that it still contains harmful components like hydrocarbons.
Petroleum Jelly is used in everything from lotions to baby products. On labels, it appears as one of the four following:
– Mineral Oil
– Liquid Paraffin
– Paraffin Oil
Petroleum Jelly Doesn’t Moisturize
Rubbing a byproduct of crude oil onto your skin isn’t the only concern when it comes to these products. Since petroleum jelly products (like Vaseline) sit on top of the skin and prevent moisture evaporation, the also prevent the skin from drawing moisture from the air. This results in trapped sebum and bacteria, preventing the skin from expelling toxins.
This is also the very reason why petroleum jelly should never be used on a burn or sunburn, as it locks in heat and can block the body’s ability to heal.
So, while you may think your skin is being moisturized, it is only the illusion of it that is taking place. There is actually nothing in petroleum jelly that nourishes the skin to result in the longer-term benefit of soft, supple skin.
Unless you’re hiking Everest and require that barrier against the deathly cold, dry air and wind that would otherwise burn your skin off, it really isn’t necessary.
Other Issues with Petroleum Jelly
Aside from blocking pores and trapping bacteria, petroleum jelly also carries some bigger problems as well.
Petroleum jelly runs a high risk of containing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), contaminants linked to cancer (1). These compounds have the ability to store in fat tissue, as pointed out by this 2011 study:
“There is strong evidence that mineral oil hydrocarbons are the greatest contaminant of the human body, amounting to approximately 1 gram per person. Possible routes of contamination include air inhalation, food intake, and dermal absorption.”
The study evaluated the long-term storage potential of these hydrocarbons in the body, and also a woman’s ability to pass them on to her child through breastfeeding. They discovered strong correlations between the amounts of fat tissue (from c-sections and breast milk samples) and the amounts of hydrocarbons passed on in breastmilk. Not surprisingly enough, they also found strong potential links between cosmetic and beauty product use and contamination.
The European Union, whose cosmetic safety standards are more stringent than those of the U.S., restrict the use of petrolatum in cosmetics and set a PAH limit (2).
2. Collagen Breakdown
While there are lots of websites out there claiming that Vaseline is a powerful anti-aging secret, the truth is that it isn’t. The barrier that the jelly creates on the skin brings up concerns about its ability to cause collagen breakdown (not a good thing).
When petroleum jelly coats the skin, it prevents it from breathing and absorbing nutrients. This slows the cell renewal process, and causes the skin to pull necessary moisture and nutrients from within. This leads to sunken-in, life-less looking skin over time, and increased collagen breakdown (aka – wrinkles!).
3. Estrogen Dominance
Another problem with petroleum jelly is the issue of estrogen dominance (when the body has high levels of estrogen in relation to progesterone). Estrogen dominance is linked to infertility, accelerated aging, allergies, menstrual problems, autoimmune problems, nutrient deficiencies, sleep problems and even some types of cancers.
Petroleum jelly contains chemicals called xenoestrogens, which may increase estrogen production in the body. These chemicals can act on hormone receptors in the body, and eventually lead to estrogen dominance (3).
4. Other Carcinogens
Petroleum-based products contain many other harmful chemicals like 1,4-dioxane, a known carcinogen (4). And while it is extremely rare that it may occur, lipid pneumonia has been documented in some cases, where petroleum jelly is applied around the nasal area. The condition occurs when small amounts of petroleum jelly are inhaled, and build up in the lungs (5). This creates severe inflammation of the lungs, which is difficult to treat.
5 Vaseline Alternatives
While Vaseline may not be loaded with carcinogens (even though it receives a high rank of 4 in the EWG Skin Deep Database), why use it when there are perfectly healthy and environmentally-friendly alternatives?
The environmental effects of supporting products that utilize petroleum in their ingredients also means you’re supporting petroleum drilling and refinement, which pollutes the soil, water and air. Cocoa, mango and shea butters do the exact opposite. They minimize environmental impact while helping support communities (always look for fair trade when buying these products!).
There are many great plant oils out there like shea butter, cocoa butter and mango butter, which soothe, soften, and heal the skin much more effectively than Vaseline and other petroleum products. These Vaseline alternatives are not only gentle on the skin, but they’re safer for the planet.
1. Jojoba Oil
I personally love jojoba oil to help moisturize my skin. Jojoba oil is a wax ester that is most similar to human skin oil (sebum). Applying it to your skin will actually trick your skin into thinking that it is producing enough oil, and thus balance oil production. It doesn’t evaporate, and helps keep the skin moisturized all day long.
My favourite brand is by Desert Essence.
2. Shea Butter
This natural plant butter is a superfood that helps nourish the skin with vitamins A and E, as well as essential fatty acids. This means that using shea butter will not only moisturize, but it will help reduce the appearance of scars, as well as minimize wrinkling. The essential fatty acids will also lessen skin inflammation and increase collagen production. It can be used on its own, or blended with other butters to create a nice fluffy body butter.
I’ve had excellent results with Nourish Organic’s brand of shea butter.
3. Cocoa Butter
A great source of antioxidants and beneficial fatty acids. It also contains beneficial plant-based saturated fats, which are especially useful for healing dry, cracked skin. Cocoa butter is an emollient, so it adds a protective layer of hydration wherever you use it (like on your lips for example). It can help block the effects of very cold temperatures, sun damage, or indoor heat, which can leave your lips (and skin) excessively dry.
I like this brand of cocoa butter.
This leader of petroleum jelly substitutes has created a product that feels and acts like Vaseline, but doesn’t clog your pores. It’s made with soy oil, beeswax, rosemary oil, and vitamin E. It is also gluten-free. You can find it here.
5. Jao Brand Goe Oil
This company went out of their way to create a jojoba-oil based Vaseline-type product that looks and feels similar, but is waaaay better for your skin. It also smells amazing, and it easily transportable. You can find this ointment here.