Most people have tub of petroleum jelly somewhere in their bathroom cabinet. But why is this slippery, oily substance – often called Vaseline, after the popular brand name – considered such a staple? “Petroleum jelly is an incredibly versatile product,” says plastic surgeon Dr Alexis Parcells. Its genius lies in its simplicity. It’s only made up of one ingredient, and because it lacks fragrances, essential oils, colouring and other additives, it can be used for a wide variety of purposes.
What is petroleum jelly?
There’s only one ingredient in Vaseline: petroleum jelly. Also called petrolatum, it is a semi-solid mixture of hydrocarbons created as a byproduct of oil. It isn’t flammable, and it doesn’t have any taste or smell. Some ancient cultures used it as a healing ointment but it was officially patented and marketed as a product in 1859. Chemist Robert Chesebrough noticed that oil plant workers used “rod wax” – a sticky substance that built up on the oil machinery – to prevent and heal wounds. He refined the substance into the whitish gel we all recognise today and named it Vaseline. He advertised his “new” product by burning himself and then using the jelly to heal the burn. Since then, people have used it as everything from a wound treatment to a diet aid, but some uses work better (and are safer) than others. Petroleum jelly is also present in many commercial paw paw ointments.
Risks or side effects
Petroleum jelly can be a trusty first-aid essential for blisters, wounds and cuts, but it’s not recommended for everyone. There are people who may have a sensitivity or may even have an allergy to products that contain petroleum. This can manifest in skin irritation. If you’re not sure whether you have a sensitivity or allergy, do a patch test on your skin before applying the product completely.
Here’s everything you need to know about petroleum jelly, including how and when to use it, and when to avoid it.
Petroleum jelly isn’t absorbed into the skin so it’s not a moisturiser like lotion. Instead, it forms an ‘occlusive’ barrier on top of the skin. Putting a thin layer over moisturised skin will help keep your skin soft by preventing moisture loss, says Dr Parcells. It’s particularly good for people with sensitive skin or those who are trying to avoid extra chemicals, she adds.
Keep in mind, this probably isn’t something you’ll be wearing during the day, as it can look greasy and oily. If you’re worried about the look, use it as an overnight skin treatment. Just be sure to use bedding you don’t care about staining, as it can leave oily marks.
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