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Petrolatum: Understanding its Benefits and Risks

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

Petrolatum, also known as petroleum jelly, is a byproduct of the oil refining process. It has been used for over a century as a common ingredient in various skincare and cosmetic products. Many of our patients at Mid-County Dermatology ask us about the uses of petrolatum and if it is healthy to use on their skin. In this article, we will delve into the composition, benefits, and potential risks associated with petrolatum.

Applying petroleum jelly to the skin
Petroleum Jelly St. Louis

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction

  2. Composition of Petrolatum

  3. Benefits of Petrolatum

    1. Moisturizing Properties

    2. Barrier Protection

    3. Wound Healing

    4. Hair Care

  4. Potential Risks of Petrolatum

    1. Contamination Concerns

    2. Skin Irritation and Allergic Reactions

    3. Risk of Aspiration Pneumonia

  5. Regulatory Status of Petrolatum

  6. Alternatives to Petrolatum

  7. Conclusion

  8. FAQs

1. Introduction

Petrolatum, also known as petroleum jelly, is a semi-solid mixture of hydrocarbons derived from petroleum. It was first discovered in the mid-1800s, and since then, it has become a staple in many cosmetic and personal care products.


2. Composition of Petrolatum

Petrolatum is composed of a mixture of mineral oils and waxes that are extracted from crude oil. The refining process involves distilling crude oil to produce different types of lubricating oils and waxes. These are then combined to create the final product.

The composition of petrolatum can vary depending on the source and refining process used. However, it typically contains a mix of saturated and unsaturated hydrocarbons, along with small amounts of other compounds such as nitrogen, sulfur, and oxygen.


3. Benefits of Petrolatum

Petrolatum has several beneficial properties that make it a popular ingredient in many skin care and cosmetic products. Here are some of its key benefits:


3.1 Moisturizing Properties

Petrolatum has excellent moisturizing properties that help to hydrate the skin and prevent dryness. It works by creating a barrier on the skin that locks in moisture, thereby reducing water loss and increasing hydration.


3.2 Barrier Protection

Petrolatum also provides a protective barrier on the skin that helps to prevent moisture loss and protect against external irritants. This makes it an effective ingredient in products such as lip balms, ointments, and diaper creams.


3.3 Wound Healing

Petrolatum has been shown to promote wound healing by creating a moist environment that aids in the natural healing process. It also helps to prevent scarring and reduce inflammation.


3.4 Hair Care

Petrolatum is often used in hair care products such as pomades and hair oils. It helps to add shine and moisture to the hair, as well as protect it from damage caused by heat styling and environmental factors.


4. Potential Risks of Petrolatum

While petrolatum has several benefits, there are also some potential risks associated with its use. Here are some of the main concerns:


4.1 Contamination Concerns

Petrolatum can become contaminated with impurities such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) during the refining process. PAHs are known carcinogens and have been linked to cancer and other health issues.


4.2 Skin Irritation and Allergic Reactions

Some people may experience skin irritation or allergic reactions when using products containing petrolatum. This is especially true for individuals with sensitive skin or those who are allergic to other petroleum-based products.


4.3 Risk of Aspiration Pneumonia

There is also a potential risk of aspiration pneumonia associated with the use of petrolatum. This occurs when small amounts of the product are inhaled into the lungs, which can lead to inflammation and infection.

It is important to note that the risk of these potential hazards is relatively low when petrolatum is used as directed and in products that have been properly formulated and tested for safety.


5. Regulatory Status of Petrolatum

In the United States, petrolatum is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an over-the-counter (OTC) drug. This means that products containing petrolatum must meet certain safety and labeling requirements.

The European Union has also established regulations for petrolatum in cosmetics. The European Commission prohibits the use of petrolatum in cosmetic products that can be inhaled, such as powders.


6. Alternatives to Petrolatum

For individuals who prefer to avoid petrolatum, there are several alternatives available. These include natural oils such as coconut oil, shea butter, and jojoba oil, as well as synthetic ingredients such as dimethicone and cyclomethicone.

It is important to note that not all alternative ingredients may be suitable for everyone, and it is always recommended to do a patch test before using a new product.


7. Conclusion

Petrolatum is a widely used ingredient in many cosmetic and personal care products due to its beneficial properties such as moisturizing and barrier protection. While there are potential risks associated with its use, the overall risk is relatively low when used as directed and in properly formulated products.

For individuals who prefer to avoid petrolatum, there are several alternatives available that can provide similar benefits. It is always important to read and follow product labels and do a patch test before using a new product.


8. FAQs


Is petrolatum safe to use on the skin?

Yes, petrolatum is generally considered safe for use on the skin. However, it is important to follow product instructions and use only properly formulated and tested products.


Can petrolatum cause cancer?

There is no evidence to suggest that petrolatum causes cancer when used as directed in cosmetic and personal care products.


Can petrolatum be used on sensitive skin?

Yes, petrolatum can be used on sensitive skin. In fact, it is often recommended for individuals with dry or sensitive skin due to its moisturizing and barrier protection properties.


What are some alternatives to petrolatum?

Some alternatives to petrolatum include natural oils such as coconut oil, shea butter, and jojoba oil, as well as synthetic ingredients such as dimethicone and cyclomethicone.


Is petrolatum vegan-friendly?

It depends on the source of the petrolatum. While most petrolatum is derived from petroleum, there are vegan-friendly options available that are derived from plant-based sources. It is always important to check product labels and ingredient lists to ensure that the product aligns with your values and preferences.


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