With new products, brands, and categories popping up every day, beauty can be a bit overwhelming. Back to Basics is our rudimentary beauty series that serves as your crash course on the science behind some of the best formulations in the game. This week, we’re taking a look at petrolatum in skin care.
All it takes is a simple internet search or a quick scroll through social media to realize that certain skin care ingredients are highly controversial. Things like parabens, phthalates, sulfates, alcohol, and mineral oil have all been dissected by the beauty community in recent years, and now petrolatum has entered the chat as the most contentious of them all. (In fact, most recently, the versatile ingredient has been spotlighted for its “slugging” capabilities, an equally debated beauty method that involves slathering on petroleum jelly over your nightly skin care as a means to lock in moisture and active ingredients.)
Petrolatum, also known as petroleum jelly, is the staple of medicine cabinets everywhere and the stuff we typically refer to via brand names like Vaseline and Aquaphor. The waxy, yellow-ish goo is FDA-approved as a skin protectant and has a storied history of use that dates all the way back to the 1800s, but that hasn’t stopped a bevy of skin care editors, experts, and enthusiasts from raising concern in recent years. They question its overall safety, as well as its environmental impact (it is a by-product of crude oil, after all).
So, where does that leave you and your nightly slugging routine? Should you swap out this skin care staple for something that is perhaps safer or more environmentally friendly? Ahead, see what five leading experts have to say about this hot-button issue.
What Is Petrolatum & How Is It Derived?
According to board-certified dermatologist, Dr. Geeta Yadav, “Petrolatum, also known as petroleum jelly, is derived from crude oil. It's an occlusive ingredient, which means it helps prevent moisture loss while shielding the skin from external factors.”
David Petrillo, a cosmetic chemist and the founder and CEO of the skin care company, Perfect Image, says that the underground oil deposits from which petrolatum originates undergo a specific set of processes before they can be packaged and sold as petroleum jelly. “These deposits undergo a process known as fractional distillation which separates the different chemical components, as crude oil can have many different types of organic, inorganic, hydrocarbons, metals, and others present,” he says.
Once the separation of components is complete, it undergoes a “dewaxing process,” and after further distillation and purification via a chemical reaction known as hydrogenation, the result is a yellowish, semi-solid substance that we recognize as petrolatum or petroleum jelly.
What Are The Skin Benefits of Petrolatum?
The ingredient has many functions within the skin care and health space, and of course is now the hero of the aforementioned slugging trend. “Petrolatum has been used for decades to help protect and heal burns, cuts, abrasions, and other minor skin issues,” Yadav says. “It's also commonly used to help treat chapped lips.”
According to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Hadley King, the occlusive, moisture-trapping action of petrolatum is what makes it unique. “For dry skin, particularly in a dry environment that will exacerbate transepidermal water loss and dryness of the skin, applying an occlusive like petrolatum can be very helpful,” she says. “Occlusives are one component of an ideal moisturizer, and moisturizers ideally contain three components: humectants, emollients, and occlusives.”
“If you're dealing with severely dry skin or damaged skin (especially in the case of sunburn, or in-office treatments like laser resurfacing), I think slugging is a clever and easy solution to help skin heal itself,” Yadav says. She notes that while slugging might be considered a recent “trend” thanks to its popularity on Instagram and TikTok, people have been doing it for years, particularly people of color.
As with any trendy skin care treatments, slugging should be approached with a healthy dose of caution, especially if you’re using certain medications. “I recommend using caution when applying occlusives on top of prescription topical medications with potential adverse effects because the occlusion could increase their potency,” King warns. If you’re unsure, consult a dermatologist.
Is Petrolatum Safe?
The safety of petrolatum is often called into question due to something called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), naturally occurring chemical compounds found in crude oil. They’re also considered to be carcinogenic. While this may seem to be cause for alarm, some experts say otherwise.
Take it from Dr. Anar Mikailov, MD, FAAD, board-certified dermatologist and the founder of KP Away. He reaffirms that the refinement process of petrolatum and other mineral oil-based ingredients is strict and rigorous. “Multiple steps are involved in petrolatum synthesis including distillation, extraction, crystallization, followed by multiple steps of purification,” he says. “This process follows very strict regulatory guidelines to ensure petrolatum meets safety mandates specifically around the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) level. These steps must follow good manufacturing practices and quality assurance controls.” As such, he insists that the final petrolatum used in cosmetics is safe.
“It is true that PAHs are carcinogenic and mutagenic as classified by multiple international health agencies,” he adds. “However, pharmaceutical grade mineral oils are almost completely free of PAHs through extensive refining. Long-term carcinogenicity studies involving topical and oral mineral oil in animals found no evidence of cancer.”
Even so, some experts say it can be tough to tell whether or not the petrolatum is safe and properly refined in the first place (at least in the U.S.). “It is illegal in the US to sell petrolatum that has not been completely refined, but it is difficult to confirm proper refinement unless a complete refining history is provided — which is required in the EU but not in the US,” King says. Petrillo seconds this notion. “You are at the mercy of what the companies say on their labels and packaging for the products that contain it.”
Still, the overwhelming consensus is that it’s generally safe. Ron Robinson, cosmetic chemist and founder of BeautyStat.com, says that exposure to PAHs from petrolatum is unlikely. “Petrolatum is still considered safe by dermatologists and skin care professionals,” he assures. “It’s recommended by AAD (American Academy of Dermatology) and is an FDA-approved ingredient for use as a skin protectant.” Because of this, it continues to be “widely used in healthcare settings and applications.” He’s even formulated his own products with it. The BeautyStat Universal C Skin Refiner contains high-grade petrolatum.
If you’re worried about PAHs, there is something you can do. Make sure you’re only using products that contain white petrolatum — this is the name for a grade of petrolatum that’s generally considered to be the gold standard of purification. “The more refined the petrolatum is, the lighter the color,” Mikailov explains. “White petrolatum is supposed to have the lowest levels of PHAs possible.”
What About The Environmental Impact?
Some people avoid petrolatum on principle because they don’t want to support the fossil fuel industry. This is certainly a valid stance. After all, it’s no secret that the skin care world has major work to do on the sustainability front, and using a product derived from crude oil (a notorious non-renewable resource), doesn’t feel very progressive, to say the least. However, petrolatum supporters make the argument that it’s a by-product of crude oil, meaning it’s derived from oil that’s already being utilized. In this way, it’s not contributing to more fossil fuel use. Plus, other more renewable skin care ingredients still require fossil fuels throughout their cultivation, transportation, and processing.
At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide whether or not you’re comfortable using petrolatum in skin care products. Generally speaking, though, experts say the scrutiny of skin care ingredients, including petrolatum, is beneficial to everyone and has the potential to move the industry forward. “People are getting smarter about what products they chose to use and put on their skin,” Petrillo says. “I think it’s a good thing — it continues to put brands and manufacturers in check and make sure they are not cutting corners, and that they understand the type of ingredients they are putting in their products.”
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