The crude version of petroleum was discovered in 1859 on oil rigs. It was a thick, dark substance collected on pump joints during the oil extraction process that had to be scraped away. Initially called “rod wax,” oil workers would use it to protect their hands. In 1870, Vaseline was introduced as a colorless, odorless, occlusive ointment distilled from rod wax and marketed as having medicinal properties.
Over 100 years later, we know a bit more about petroleum jelly. It provides an occlusive layer over the skin, preventing transepidermal water loss, which has been shown to be helpful for healing skin [1.2]. It is important to note that despite what many of us have been taught, skin heals faster when you keep it covered with ointment and a bandage. Wounds do not benefit from drying out or scabbing. The question is, what do you use to occlude it and how can you be sure it is helping and not hurting?
Allergy to petroleum jelly is quite rare. Health concerns with using petroleum jelly come from the theoretical risk of exposure to contaminants in the petroleum, in particular polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). PAHs are formed when oils are burned, such as with coal, gasoline, or even when you grill a steak. At least 15 of the more than 100 forms of PAHs are deemed “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens” according to the Report on Carcinogens, Fourteenth Edition. Ideally, the refining process removes PAH contamination from petroleum jelly, as PAHs can enter the body right through the skin. Interestingly, the EU requires a full history of the refining process of petroleum jelly with proof it is not a carcinogen. The US does not yet have this regulatory requirement.
Nonetheless, petroleum jelly is likely safe for the skin. However, we certainly know it is not renewable, and the concept of covering your skin with a fossil fuel extract is kind of gross. This picture becomes further complicated by other ingredients added to the petroleum jelly. Products like Aquaphor, Bag Balm, Neosporin, Polysporin, Skinceuticals Hydrabalm, Elta MD Laser Balm and many others use a petroleum base mixed with ingredients that are now known to be common allergens like lanolin, neomycin and vitamin E. These ingredients can irritate the skin and slow the healing process.
It was seeing reaction to these products that pushed me to create Doctor Rogers RESTORE Healing Balm. This ointment only has three carefully selected, hypoallergenic, plant-based, proven ingredients. We use castor seed oil and wax to provide that same occlusive protection as petroleum but with fatty oils that are renewable and have emollient (moisturizing) properties. The vegetable-derived glycerin is included in the balm because of its humectant properties to pull water into the skin to help hydrate and heal. In fact, RESTORE Healing Balm’s benefits were recently confirmed in a blinded, comparative study of healing after CO2 laser procedures. Treated patients were given RESTORE for half their face and Aquaphor for the other. The RESTORE side outperformed the Aquaphor side in every measure (speed of healing of red, swelling and crusting.) This study was published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology and presented at American Society for Dermatology Surgery Annual Meeting in 2018.
If you need a cheap, easy option to protect your skin, petroleum jelly is likely safe. If you are looking for a petroleum-free, plant-based option that is still hypoallergenic, I recommend Doctor Rogers RESTORE Healing Balm. It is all we use after surgeries and lasering in my dermatology practice.
- Lodén M, Bárány E. Skin-identical lipids versus petrolatum in the treatment of tape-stripped and detergent-perturbed human skin. Acta Derm Venereol. 2000;80(6):412-5.
- Ghadially R, Halkier-Sorensen L, Elias P. Effects of petrolatum on stratum corneum structure and function. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1992;26(3 Pt 2):387-96.