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What Is Petroleum Jelly? Uses, Benefits, Dangers & More

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Petroleum jelly - Dr. Axe

Two popular brands of petroleum jelly that you may be familiar with are Vaseline (which is 100 percent petroleum) and Aquaphor (which contains other moisturizing ingredients, too). Both are very versatile products that have been used for a variety of skin care and household purposes for many decades.

In fact, petroleum jelly has been around for more than 150 years.

This so-called “healing jelly” works by creating a barrier on the surface of the skin that helps lock in moisture and prevent water loss and drying. It makes sense then that petroleum jelly uses include treating cracked lips, diaper rash, irritation due to chafing and much more.

What Is Petroleum Jelly?

Petroleum jelly (PJ) is a semi-solid skin protectant that is applied topically to help treat dry, cracked skin or lips.

Its chemical composition is a mix of hydrocarbons, and it’s made using mineral oil and wax. Technically it’s considered an “occlusive” moisturizer, since it creates a hydrophobic barrier over the skin.

PJ appears as a colorless or pale yellow jelly-like substance that is translucent and doesn’t have a taste or smell. (It’s not meant to be eaten.)

Petroleum jelly also goes by several other names, including:

  • petrolatum
  • white petrolatum
  • soft paraffin
  • multi-hydrocarbon

Benefits/Uses

What is petroleum jelly used for? According to the American Academy of Dermatology, most petroleum jelly uses are related to its lubricating and coating properties.

Petroleum is the main active compound in this product that has the ability to reduce dryness by not allowing moisturize to escape the skin/lips. While it doesn’t actually moisturize the skin itself, it holds in moisture as it sits on top of the skin and may help other skin ingredients work better.

Research suggests it has the most beneficial effects when applied over damp, clean skin.

Petroleum jelly benefits include:

1. Hydrating Cracked, Dry Skin

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has approved PJ as an over-the-counter skin protectant. You’ll find it in cosmetics, lotions, ointments, chap ticks and other skin care products.

PJ can be used to decrease skin dryness and improve moisture when applied to dry hands, elbows, heels or elsewhere. If using it to treat cracked heels or hands, add some before putting on socks or soft gloves, such as before bed.

Studies suggest it can also be used in wound care. When applied over healing, cleaned wounds (not open wounds) it helps keep them moist and potentially minimizes scarring.

For those who deal with psoriasis symptoms, PJ can be applied to the skin on top of thick lotions or creams meant to treat psoriasis, helping improve their absorption, reducing itching and inflammation, and adding moisture.

Can you use petroleum jelly on your face? Yes, it shouldn’t clog pores and is considered non-comedogenic, however it can worsen shine and oiliness, so it may not be the best choice for people with acne-prone or overly oily skin.

It’s also important to clean your skin before applying it, otherwise you may actually trap bacteria and prevent air from reaching your skin.

2. Helping Prevent Diaper Rash and Irritation

Is it safe to use petroleum jelly on sensitive skin, including the skin of babies and children? Usually, yes.

It’s considered safe for infants over three months in most cases.

It can be used to add a layer of protection over the skin, blocking irritation from diapers, wetness, drool or even chafing. It can also help reduce itchy skin in newborns and infants caused by contact dermatitis.

Try applying a small amount to a baby’s bottom before putting on a diaper, or apply it to vulnerable areas to prevent skin from rubbing together and chafing, such as the inner thighs or armpits. It will help prevent friction and irritation by both buffering the skin against contact with other substances and by preventing water loss.

3. Treating Dry Lips

Why is petroleum jelly good for your lips? You can use PJ on your lips just like you would chapstick or mix it into an exfoliator to gently help remove dead skin cells and hydrate skin.

It may work even better when applied on the lips over another hydrating ingredient, such as coconut oil, helping the oil to absorb and boosting moisture.

4. Protecting Cuticles

Apply some PJ to your cuticles to prevent them from drying and splitting or to keep nail polish off of them when painting your nails. Similarly, when dying your hair at home you can apply petroleum along your hairline and neck to prevent your skin from being stained.

5. Removing Makeup

You can use PJ on your face to help remove makeup, however be careful not to get it into your eyes. Additionally, you can use PJ when applying makeup, such as to help your cheekbones shine or to keep your eyebrows tamed and in place — as well as to prevent mascara from rubbing off around your eyes.

Other petroleum jelly uses that require more research include:

  • Home remedy for hair lice.
  • Hemorrhoid relief.
  • Prevention of swimmer’s ear.
  • Prevention of blisters and windburn.
  • Buffer during ultrasounds.
  • Hair grooming and moustache wax.
  • Protector of pets’ paws.
  • Many household uses like opening jars, buffering leather and protecting car parts from damage.
  • *While some use it as a personal lubricant, it has the potential to cause irritation and even a mild infection, plus it shouldn’t be used with condoms because it may cause latex to thin and tear.

Dangers, Risks and Side Effects

Why may petroleum jelly be bad? Petroleum jelly side effects are rare but still possible.

This product should not be used internally, such as inside the nose or taken by mouth. Be careful not to put it up your nose and breath it in, which can possibly lead to conditions such as pneumonia or respiratory issues if you inhale too much unrefined mineral oil.

It’s usually safe to use small amounts inside the eyelids to add moisture, however do this with caution. It’s also not intended to be used for skin whitening.

Fortunately, the risk for experiencing an allergic reaction when using petroleum jelly is low. However, if you notice signs of irritation, allergies or infection, stop using it right away.

Only use it on external, cleaned wounds to prevent infections.

Is petroleum jelly toxic?

There is some concern over whether PJ/vaseline may be toxic, considering PJ is a byproduct of petroleum oil refining.

According to the FDA and other authorities, these products are safe to use for skin care based on existing evidence showing that they are not risky or toxic. However, in 2015, one analysis of cosmetics containing mineral oils found that some do possibly have carcinogenic qualities — therefore researchers from this particular study recommend not using PJ/Vaseline directly on the lips.

One way to reduce the risk for any toxic effects is to purchase Vaseline rather than a generic brand. Vaseline is highly refined, triple-purified and regarded as non-carcinogenic because any potentially toxic compounds are carefully removed during manufacturing.

Petroleum Jelly vs. Vaseline

Vaseline is 100 percent pure petroleum jelly. It is one brand name for PJ and the original PJ product that was created in the 1800s, but now there are many generic brands of PJ available in stores.

Aquaphor, on the other hand, contains PJ along with mineral oil, glycerin and other ingredients. PJ, Vaseline and Aquaphor can all be applied to the lips and face to improve moisture and act as barriers.

Can you make petroleum jelly at home (or Vaseline)?

Since it’s made via a somewhat complex chemical process, it’s not something you’ll be able to make a DIY version of. However you can make alternatives at home using coconut oil, cocoa butter, olive oil or even beeswax, which are used in many of the same ways.

Try combining about 1 ounce (28 g) of beeswax and ½ cup (118 ml) of olive or coconut oil by melting them in a pan and stirring, which will have similar effects as PJ.

Conclusion

  • What is petroleum jelly? It’s a semi-solid skin protectant that is applied topically to help treat dry, cracked skin or lips.
  • Petroleum jelly uses include helping to treat and prevent dryness, cracked heels, diaper rash, psoriasis, blisters, lice, hemorrhoids and more.
  • Is petroleum jelly safe? Yes, as long as you aren’t allergic to it. It can be used on sensitive skin and on infants over three months.
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