The Truth About Petrolatum

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One of the greatest problems in the U.S. right now is the fact that there is so much misinformation surrounding the health and beauty industry. One great example of this involves the ingredient petrolatum, which many dermatologists consider to be among the best moisturizers in modern day skin care (Cosmetic Dermatology). However, a plethora of misinformation, including erroneous facts propagated by natural/organic skin care companies and the political Environmental Working Group, has caused it to be one of the most vilified ingredients around. Here, we clarify what is scientific and what is not, without bias.

[Read more: Does Petrolatum Enahnce UV Light?]

Petrolatum clogs the pores:  FALSE

Nope, not the case. In fact, petrolatum has been affirmed to be non-comedogenic and to not cause allergic reactions (American Academy of Dermatology Invitational on Comedogenicity).

The greasy, oily feeling of petrolatum leads consumers to believe that petrolatum makes them break out, yet what can actually cause break outs are the ingredients that are used in conjunction with petrolatum. Because petrolatum traps moisture and water-based ingredients under the skin, it can essentially “trap” non-comedogenic ingredients used together with petrolatum under there, causing stronger reactions (Allergy). Be sure to avoid ingredients like lanolin, coconut oil, squalene, mineral oil, and isopropyl myristate when using petrolatum (Cosmetic Dermatology).

Cosmetic-grade petrolatum causes cancer:  FALSE  

Belief that cosmetic-grade petrolatum causes cancer stems from the fact that impure petrolatum contains compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). However, cosmetic-grade petrolatum must meet industry standards for purification, so, if anything, it contains extremely low to no amount of PAHs. Truth be told, the greatest human exposure to PAHs is through commercial-grade fuel burning, not cosmetic-grade petrolatum.

Petrolatum causes premature aging:  FALSE  

Petrolatum is an occlusive moisturizer, so when it’s used in conjunction with irritants, it could make the resulting irritation even worse.

Actually, the opposite is true. Petrolatum is a type of compound known as hydrophobic, which means that it repels water. For this reason, petrolatum is used regularly following laser surgery (Dermatologic Surgery) to provide a protective barrier over the skin. It is also a superb moisturizing agent because it forms a film over the skin, making it an occlusive moisturizer.

Petrolatum rests on top of the skin:  TRUE  

Petrolatum rests on top of the skin, forming a water-repelling film. On the one hand, this makes it is a great moisturizer. On the other hand, you have to be careful what you use with petrolatum, and it is obviously not a good solvent for delivering other skin care ingredients deep into the skin. On its own, however, it moisturizes well.

[Read more: Does Petrolatum Really Dry Out Your Lips?]

Petrolatum comes from a non-renewable resource:  TRUE and FALSE

Petrolatum is a hydrocarbon, traditionally derived from the distillation of oil. Due to growing concerns that petrolatum is sourced from non-renewable sources, some skin care and cosmetics companies have started to use “hybrid petrolatums” derived from a combination of vegetable oils and waxes. Most, however, do not.

If you are ultra-big on the green movement, you may wish to avoid petrolatum. However, as cosmetic chemist Rebecca James Gadberry has noted, many people do not realize that more than 50% of the ingredients used in cosmetics are derived from non-renewable resources as well (Skin Inc). So perhaps methods like avoiding plastic bags, buying reusable water bottles, and recycling are more sustainable, valid efforts than supporting the green movement through your choices in beauty products. Of course, every effort counts – this is your choice.

[Read more: Should You Consider a Petrolatum Substitute Like Waxelene?]

Bottom Line

Petrolatum is not petroleum – and cosmetic-grade petrolatum is, by and large, safe. The only two valid concerns, scientifically-speaking, are the fact that petrolatum should not be used with irritating ingredients like lanolin, squalene, isopropyl myristate, and mineral oil (Cosmetic Dermatology), and that it is likely not coming from an entirely renewable resource, though cosmetics companies are becoming increasingly better about doing just that.

What are your thoughts on petrolatum?  Let us know!

Looking for the best skin care? FutureDerm is committed to having its customers find — and create — the best skin care for their individual skin type, concern, and based on your ingredient preferences. Learn more by visiting the FutureDerm shop

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About Myself

Nicki Zevola is the founder and editor-in-chief of FutureDerm.com. Named one of the top 30 beauty bloggers in the world by Konector.com since 2009, Nicki