Is Petrolatum in skincare as bad as they say it is?
A quick Google search brings up all kinds of evils:
Petrolatum gives you acne.
Worse, it gives you cancer, too.
And it makes you age faster.
Is all this true or is Petrolatum blamed only for the sins of its father, petroleum? Here’s what science says about Petroleum in skincare products:
What Is Petrolatum?
Vaseline is pure petrolatum. This rich emollient got a bad reputation because it’s derived from crude oil (wait a minute, isn’t that natural? 😉 ), but it’s not petroleum.
How is petrolatum different from petroleum? Massively. Petrolatum undergoes a strict purifying process that removes all its toxic, nasty bits before it’s added to skincare products.
The end product has a completely different molecular structure that doesn’t resemble petroleum in the least. They’re two completely different substances. It’s just not fair to blame petrolatum for the sins of petroleum!
Related: 7 Maligned Skincare Ingredients With An Undeserved Bad Reputation
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Petrolatum For Skin: What Does It Do?
Petrolatum is a godsend for dry skin. A FDA-approved skin protectant, it creates a protective barrier on the skin. This barrier has three jobs:
- Moisturising: It slows down water loss, helping to keep skin hydrated for longer. Mind you, I’ve said slow down, not prevent. Petrolatum is occlusive, but not completely impenetrable. Some water can still escape from your skin – just way more slowly than it would otherwise.
- Strengthening: It strengthens your protective barrier, so harsh temperatures and irritants won’t break it down. While it’s at it, it also helps keep germs, pollutants, and other crap out of your body.
- Skin-Protectant: It temporarily protects injured skin from harmful sources that can cause rashes, scratches, and all kinds of things that slow down the healing process.
If you’ve got dry skin with a broken protective barrier (cue flakiness, redness, and all kinds of irritations), studies show petrolatum is moisturising enough to nurse it back to health fast.
Its protective properties make it soothing, as well. Your skin will heal much faster, if it can better withstand the attacks from all the irritants that are trying to break it down every single day.
Related: How To Strengthen Your Skin’s Protective Barrier (And Why It Matters)
Is Petrolatum Safe For Skin?
Yes. Contrary to popular opinion, Petrolatum is one of the safest things you can use on your skin. Studies show it’s virtually non-sensitising.
Petrolatum is highly purified and doesn’t contain any of the fragrant components, resins, pollen traces, or any of the other common allergens you can find in lots of natural alternatives.
There’s a rumour that Petrolatum is banned in Europe. This is simply NOT true. I’m an Italian woman living in the UK and, let me assure you, you can buy vaseline or petrolatum-containing products everywhere on the continent.
European law simply requires that “the full refining history for petrolatum must be documented showing that the substance from which it is produced is not a carcinogen, i.e., the petrolatum must be properly refined”. What does this mean?
It’s UNREFINED Petrolatum that’s banned in Europe – just like in the US and the rest of the world. Refined petrolatum is totally ok to use.
Related: Skincare Ingredients I Avoid (Warning: This List May Surprise You)
Does Petrolatum Cause Cancer?
No. Petrolatum does NOT cause cancer. Again, petrolatum is NOT petroleum. The latter is dangerous, the former is highly refined to make it safe for use on the skin.
There’s a nasty rumour going around that the petrolatum used in skincare products contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). They’re carcinogenic chemicals found in crude oil and some of its derivatives – derivatives that are NOT used on the skin.
PAHs are removed during the refining and purification process. If any survive this process, the amount is so low, it can’t cause any problems.
Remember: it’s the dose that makes the poison. And also, brands don’t want to kill you. That’s bad publicity they’d rather do without.
Does Petrolatum Clog Pores And Cause Acne?
Petrolatum is thick and greasy. You’d think it’s a given that it clogs pores and gives you acne.
It’s a myth. Petrolatum itself is non-comedogenic. But it can trap comedogenic ingredients in – and that can cause breakouts. Let me explain.
Remember when I mentioned Petrolatum forms a protective barrier on the skin that traps moisture in? This barrier also traps in serums, excess sebum, and whatever is on your skin at that moment.
If you’re using Petrolatum on freshly washed skin, great. But if you slather it on a serum/cream with coconut oil, isopropyl palmitate, or any other comedogenic ingredients, they’ll be trapped under the skin, where they clog pores and cause breakouts.
Bottom line: don’t use Petrolatum with comedogenic ingredients and you’ll be fine.
Related: What Skincare Ingredients Are Comedogenic?
Does Petrolatum Cause Premature Aging?
No. I have no idea where this claim comes from, but there’s NO truth in it. Petrolatum doesn’t cause premature aging. How would it even do that?
Petrolatum stays on the skin, where it creates a moisturising barrier. When skin has all the moisture it needs, it looks younger. Skin gets softer, fine lines plump up and look smaller, and the whole complexion glows as if lit-from-within.
Sure, this effect is only temporary. But you could say the same about Hyaluronic Acid – but that doesn’t have the same bad rep.
It’s true that Petrolatum has no anti-aging properties. Unlike plant oils, it doesn’t have a drop of antioxidants in it. But having no anti-aging properties isn’t the same as causing premature aging.
Related: If Your Skin Is Perfectly Hydrated, Do You Still Need To Worry About Anti-Aging?
What Are The Best Skincare Products With Petrolatum?
- Aquaphor Lip Protectant + Sunscreen ($3.99): Available at Ulta
- CeraVe Healing Ointment ($9.99): Available at Ulta
- Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream Original ($24.00): Available at Feel Unique, Look Fantastic, Net-A-Porter, and Ulta
The Bottom Line
Petrolatum is NOT petroleum. Cosmetic grade Petrolatum – the ONLY kind allowed in cosmetics – is highly refined and 100% safe. It deeply moisturises skin and protects it from further harm. Just don’t use it together with comedogenic ingredients.