Petrolatum, also known at petroleum jelly, is a moisturizing agent made from petroleum, or more simply, made from refining crude oil. Petrolatum has a number of uses in cosmetics as a protectant due to its waterproofing characteristics and low melting point (typically between 96.8 and 158 degrees Fahrenheit). Petrolatum has been used as a medicinal “cure-all” since it was first refined and commercialized by Robert Chesebrough. From a scientific standpoint, petrolatum is composed of a long chain of hydrocarbons.
The History of Petrolatum
Petrolatum was originally discovered as a byproduct of drilling for petroleum, the unrefined version of petrolatum would accumulate, causing the drilling equipment to malfunction. The widespread use of petroleum caused the use of sperm whale oil to decline, putting Robert Chesebrough, a chemist who previously made a living from distilling the oil, in a difficult situation. After hearing about the biproduct, he created a process for vacuum distillation to create the first versions of petroleum jelly as we know it. Chesebrough was granted a patent for the process in 1872 and started commercial production of :Vaseline” in 1870.
Naturally, it’s unlikely that the first few attempts Chesebrough made led to a product that would meet the guidelines that the United States Pharmacopeia sets for “White Petrolatum, USP.”
Is Petrolatum Safe?
The safety of petrolatum depends wholly on the application that it is being used for. For example, in a pinch, you can use petrolatum to prevent corrosion on your car’s battery terminals. The odds of having to worry about the quality of the distillation process are pretty minimal!
However, if you intend to use petrolatum on your skin or hair, appropriate quality control measures in the manufacturing process are essential. Low grade, unrefined petrolatum contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), also called polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons. PAHs are carcinogenic and should be avoided.
Petrolatum in cosmetic products are not regulated by the FDA, so ensuring that any products that use petrolatum only use “white petrolatum” or “petrolatum, USP” is one of the few steps you can take to protect yourself against adulterated ingredients in your skincare products.