Here at CV Skinlabs, we’ve often talked about avoiding mineral oil and other petrolatum-based products in skin care products.
But we’ve noticed that many over-the-counter skin care products—even some advertised as being “natural” and good for your skin—still contain these ingredients.
Maybe your grandmother swears by her Vaseline jelly (which is petroleum jelly), or you know other people who seem to use these ingredients and enjoy benefits from them.
So why do we suggest you avoid them?
What is Petrolatum?
Petrolatum is a byproduct of petroleum refining. It was first discovered in the 1850s when chemist Robert Chesebrough noticed a thick gel sticking to the insides of oil wells. Rig workers would use it on their cuts and burns, so after further study, Chesebrough refined the product, patented it, and sold it as Vaseline beginning in 1872.
Also known as petroleum jelly or soft white paraffin wax, petrolatum has since been widely used in all sorts of personal care products as a moisturizer. The Environmental Working Group states that petrolatum exists in 1 out of every 14 cosmetic products on the market today, including baby lotions and oils, lipsticks, diaper rash treatments, bath products, cleansing products, makeup, shampoos, conditioners, shaving products, and suntan products.
Petrolatum does have some benefits. It slows the loss of water from the skin by forming a barrier on the surface, essentially trapping the water inside. It can also enhance hair texture and shine, and it has a long shelf life, meaning it can be kept for years without degrading. It’s odorless and colorless, and can also keep out microorganisms that may cause an infection.
What’s the Problem with Petrolatum?
The biggest concern with petrolatum is how it’s made. When properly refined, it has no known health concerns (though it’s still not the best for skin—more on that below). But unless the entire refining process is carefully monitored and recorded, there is a potential for contamination from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are cancer-causing chemicals found in crude oil and its by-products.
Though the raw material for petrolatum is a byproduct of petroleum refining, the product has to go through additional refining and purification processes to be ready for cosmetic application. A low-grade refining process is more likely to produce contaminated petrolatum than a high-grade process. Unfortunately, in the U.S., there’s no way to know how the product was refined unless the manufacturer volunteers the information.
In a 2009 animal study, researchers applied 100 mg of 1 of 5 different moisturizing creams—all but one of which contained petrolatum ingredients like mineral oil and petrolatum—to the skin once a day, 5 days a week for 17 weeks to subjects at high risk for tumors.
They found that the petrolatum-containing creams significantly increased the rate of formation of tumors and the rate of increase in tumor size per mouse, while the one cream that didn’t contain petrolatum did not cause any detrimental effects.
It’s unclear whether the results would be the same in humans, but this study and others like it are concerning.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers mineral oil and other petrolatum products to be safe, and allows their use in both personal care products and food products. The European Union, however, has actually classified petrolatum as a carcinogen, and has placed restrictions on its use in cosmetics.
In the E.U., petrolatum is banned from cosmetic products with one exception—when the full refining history is known and it can be shown that the substance from which it’s produced is not a carcinogen. Those manufacturers that can meet this standard are allowed to use the ingredients.
Vaseline ensures that it’s made with the highest quality ingredients and a proprietary triple-purification process involving distillation, de-aeration, and filtration, but what about the petrolatum in your moisturizer, cleanser, shampoo, or baby lotion? It’s not easy to tell. Meanwhile, there are other reasons to avoid this ingredient.
Petrolatum Not Great for the Skin
Petrolatum ingredients coat the skin, which yes, can help reduce water loss in the short-term, but that also means that it tends to trap bacteria against the skin as well. If you notice an increase in acne breakouts after using a cosmetic product, check the ingredient list—petrolatum could be to blame.
In fact, in a 2000 study, researchers found that after healthcare workers started using petroleum ointment for skin care in extremely low birth weight infants, those infants experienced an outbreak of systemic candidiasis (fungal infection). After the connection was discovered, the healthcare workers stopped using the ointment.
A 2013 study also found that women using products like sexual lubricants and petroleum jelly in the vagina were more at risk for bacterial vaginosis.
Refined petroleum products may also contain hormone-disrupting substances. In a 2010 study, researchers found that all crude-oil and refined products studied were capable of causing estrogenic responses—interfering with the estrogen hormone in the body. High levels of estrogen have been linked with infertility, menstrual problems, accelerated aging, and autoimmune problems.
Petrolatum also gives nothing to the skin. It forms a barrier over it, but unlike so many other nourishing ingredients like shea butter or natural oils, it doesn’t nourish or hydrate the skin in a way that’s necessary for delaying premature aging. It simply coats the skin, which can actually slow down the cell renewal process and create older-looking skin.
If used on sunburned skin, petrolatum can lock in heat and slow healing, potentially increasing damage in the long run.
Finally, petrolatum products tend to make skin drier. When you first apply them, they feel soothing, but when they wear off, skin is often drier than it was before (because it didn’t receive anything hydrating), so you apply the product again and again, engaging in a cycle that robs your skin of the moisture it really needs.
How to Tell if Your Product Has Petrolatum
How can you tell if your cosmetic product contains petrolatum ingredients? Look for these words on your ingredient list:
- Mineral oil
- Liquid paraffin
- Paraffin oil
More nourishing and healthy ingredients you can use to replace petrolatum ingredients include:
- Coconut oil and other natural oils (jojoba, calendula, sunflower, etc.)
- Shea butters and other butters (cocoa)
By the way, all of our CV Skinlabs products are happily petrolatum-free! You can use our Restorative Skin Balm, for example, as a healthy alternative ointment, balm, and cuticle softener.
Do you avoid petrolatum ingredients?
Brown, J. M., Hess, K. L., Brown, S., Murphy, C., Waldman, A. L., & Hezareh, M. (2013). Intravaginal Practices and Risk of Bacterial Vaginosis and Candidiasis Infection Among a Cohort of Women in the United States. Obstetrics & Gynecology, 121(4), 773-780. doi:10.1097/aog.0b013e31828786f8
Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. (n.d.). Petrolatum, petroleum jelly. Retrieved from http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/petrolatum/
Campbell, J. R., Zaccaria, E., & Baker, C. J. (2000). Systemic Candidiasis in Extremely Low Birth Weight Infants Receiving Topical Petrolatum Ointment for Skin Care: A Case-Control Study. PEDIATRICS, 105(5), 1041-1045. doi:10.1542/peds.105.5.1041
Lu, Y., Lou, Y., Xie, J., Peng, Q., Shih, W. J., Lin, Y., & Conney, A. H. (2009). Tumorigenic Effect of Some Commonly Used Moisturizing Creams when Applied Topically to UVB-Pretreated High-Risk Mice. Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 129(2), 468-475. doi:10.1038/jid.2008.241
Vrabie, C. M., Candido, A., Van Duursen, M. B., & Jonker, M. T. (2010). Specific in vitro toxicity of crude and refined petroleum products: II. Estrogen (α and β) and androgen receptor-mediated responses in yeast assays. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 29(7), 1529-1536. doi:10.1002/etc.187