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 a crash course in the science behind some of the best formulations in the game. This week, we’re looking at petroleum jelly in skincare.

It only takes a simple internet search or a quick scroll through social media to realize that some 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 petroleum jelly has entered the chat as the most controversial of them all. (In fact, more recently, the versatile ingredient has come to light for its “slugging” abilities, an equally debated beauty method that involves slathering petroleum jelly on your nighttime skincare as a way to hold in the shine. moisture and active ingredients.)

Vaseline, also known as petroleum jelly, is the staple of medicine cabinets everywhere and the things we usually refer to via brand names like Vaseline and Aquaphor. The waxy, yellowish goo is FDA-approved as a skin protectant and has a history of historical use dating back to the 1800, but that hasn’t stopped a host of editors, experts, and skincare enthusiasts from raising concerns in recent years. They question its overall safety, as well as its impact on the environment (it’s a byproduct of crude oil, after all).

So what about you and your nighttime slugging routine? Should you swap this skincare staple for something that’s perhaps safer or more eco-friendly? Ahead, find out what five leading experts have to say about this burning issue.

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What is petroleum jelly and how is it derived?

According to a board-certified dermatologist, Dr Geeta Yadav“Petrolatum, also known as petroleum jelly, is derived from crude oil. It is an occlusive ingredient, meaning it helps prevent moisture loss while protecting the skin from external factors.

David Petrillo, cosmetic chemist and skincare company founder and CEO, picture perfect, indicates that the underground oil deposits from which petroleum jelly comes undergo a specific set of processes before it 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 contain many different types of organic, inorganic, hydrocarbon, metal and other elements,” he says. .

After the separation of the 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 petroleum jelly or petroleum jelly.

What are the skin benefits of Petrolatum?

The ingredient has many functions in the field of skincare and health, 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 conditions,” Yadav says. “It’s also commonly used to help treat chapped lips.”

According to a board-certified dermatologist Dr. Hadley King, the occlusive and moisture-trapping action of Vaseline is what makes it unique. “For dry skin, especially in a dry environment that will aggravate transepidermal water loss and skin dryness, applying an occlusive like petroleum jelly can be very helpful,” she says. “Occlusives are one component of an ideal moisturizer, and moisturizers ideally contain three components: humectants, emollients, and occlusives.”

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“If you have very dry skin or damaged skin (especially sunburn or in-office treatments like laser resurfacing), I think slugging is a smart and easy solution to help skin heal. cure,” says Yadav. She notes that while slugging may be considered a recent “trend” thanks to its popularity on Instagram and TikTok, people have been doing it for years, especially people of color.

As with all trendy skincare, slugging should be approached with a healthy dose of caution, especially if you’re using certain medications. “I recommend caution when applying occlusives over topical prescription medications with potential adverse effects, as occlusion could increase their potency,” King warns. If you are unsure, consult a dermatologist.

Is petroleum jelly safe?

The safety of petrolatum is often questioned due to so-called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), naturally occurring chemical compounds found in crude oil. They are also considered as carcinogenic. Although this may sound alarming, some experts say otherwise.

Take it from Dr. Anar Mikailov, MD, FAAD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of outside KP. It reaffirms that the process of refining petroleum jelly and other mineral oil ingredients is strict and rigorous. “Several steps are involved in the synthesis of petrolatum, including distillation, extraction, crystallization, followed by several purification steps,” he says. “This process follows very strict regulatory guidelines to ensure that the petrolatum meets safety mandates, particularly regarding the level of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These steps must follow good manufacturing practices and quality assurance controls. As such, he insists that the final petroleum jelly used in cosmetics is safe.

“It is true that PAHs are carcinogenic and mutagenic according to the classification of several international health agencies”, he adds. “However, pharmaceutical-grade mineral oils are almost completely PAH-free thanks to intensive refining. Long-term carcinogenicity studies involving topical and oral mineral oil in animals have found no evidence of cancer.

Even so, some experts say it can be hard to tell if petroleum jelly is safe and properly refined in the first place (at least in the US). “It is illegal in the United States to sell petroleum jelly that has not been fully refined, but it is difficult to confirm proper refining unless a full refining history is provided – which is required in the ‘EU but not in the US,’ says King. Petrillo supports this idea. “You are at the mercy of what companies say on their labels and packaging for products that contain it.”

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Yet the overwhelming consensus is that it is generally safe. Ron Robinson, cosmetic chemist and founder of BeautyStat.com, states that exposure to PAHs from petroleum jelly is unlikely. “Petrolatum is still considered safe by dermatologists and skincare professionals,” he says. “It is recommended by the AAD (American Academy of Dermatology) and is an FDA approved ingredient for use as a skin protectant.” For this reason, it continues to be “widely used in healthcare environments and applications”. He even formulated his own products with it. the BeautyStat Universal C Skin Refiner contains high quality petroleum jelly.

If you’re worried about PAHs, there’s something you can do. Make sure you only use products that contain white petroleum jelly – it’s the name of a grade of petroleum jelly that’s generally considered the gold standard for purification. “The finer the Vaseline, the lighter the color,” says Mikailov. “White Vaseline is believed to have the lowest possible PHA levels.”

What about the environmental impact?

Some people avoid Vaseline on principle because they don’t want to support the fossil fuel industry. It is certainly a valid position. After all, it’s no secret that the skincare world has a major job to do on the sustainability front, and using a product derived from crude oil (a notorious non-renewable resource ) doesn’t sound very progressive, to say the least. However, proponents of Vaseline argue that it is a by-product crude oil, which means it is derived from petroleum that is already in use. In this way, it does not contribute to Continued the use of fossil fuels. Additionally, other more renewable skincare ingredients still require fossil fuels throughout their cultivation, transportation, and processing.

Ultimately, it’s up to you whether or not you’re comfortable with petroleum jelly in skincare products. Generally speaking, however, experts say that scrutinizing skincare ingredients, including petroleum jelly, is beneficial for everyone and has the potential to push the industry forward. “People are getting smarter about what products they choose to use and put on their skin,” says Petrillo. “I think that’s a good thing – it continues to put brands and manufacturers in check and make sure they don’t take shortcuts and understand what kind of ingredients they put in. their products.”

We only include products that have been independently selected by TZR’s editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.

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