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Is it time we stopped using petroleum jelly?

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Petroleum jelly – otherwise known as petrolatum, paraffin wax or, most commonly, Vaseline - is a product which, for many years, we have used to heal minor skin injuries, burns and dry skin, to remove makeup and to prevent dye and nail polish stains on the skin.

It’s very standard practice to have one of those small tins of Vaseline in your handbag to soothe chapped lips, or a tub in the bathroom cupboard, with no second thought to any potential dangers it may have.

Few of us have considered where the jelly comes from; I certainly hadn’t until I read an article detailing that it was a by-product of crude oil. I guess there is some hint in the name ‘petroleum jelly’, yet it never clicked, and I am sure it never has for many others.

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Four classic tins. Refreshed. Have you picked up yours yet?

A post shared by VaselineUK (@vaselineuk) on

It was first discovered in 1859 when oil workers were found to be using the unrefined, waxy form of the substance, which collected on parts of the oil rigs, to heal their cuts and burns. A chemist soon began studying the wax, leading to its refinement and purification to create the colourless and odourless gel that we are so happy to lather over our lips and skin today. Despite this purification, the mere fact that the product comes from oil puts alarm bells in my head. Should we really be using the product?

Straightaway, I question the health implications. Some people claim that petroleum jelly is carcinogenic because the substance is highly prone to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) contamination. Once these enter the body, our bodily tissues convert them into various substances, some of which are harmful to our health. It is in fact believed that several PAH types are linked to cancer development in humans.

Nevertheless, producers of petroleum jelly products claim that their products are filtered thoroughly, removing all cancer-causing elements. Vaseline states on their website that the product is triple-purified to extract carcinogenic material, therefore “it does not pose a risk of causing cancer, being a safe skin care choice”. It also meets EU Pharmacopoeia standards, which supposedly guarantees that a product is not carcinogenic. Yet, there is no guarantee for products produced out of the EU, notably in America, which could make you sceptical about some other brands.

On top of potential health risks, there are environmental issues: surely using petroleum jelly inadvertently backs the ecological and environmental damage that oil drilling and the burning of fossil fuels causes? We should all be well aware of the wildlife disruption, pollution, and contribution to global warming associated with fossil fuels, and if we want to live as sustainably and eco-friendly as we can, perhaps petroleum jelly shouldn’t be in our bathroom cupboards.

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Now, turning to its effect on our skin. Its occlusive properties may fight against dryness (by not allowing moisture already in the skin to leave), but it doesn’t allow the skin to breathe, it blocks pores and can trap residue and all forms of bacteria. This means one thing: breakouts. Not only does it trap in these blemish-causers, but it also traps in heat, which means that a burn cannot be cured with petroleum jelly, despite what many people think. Regular use of the product is also believed to stop the skin from producing its own moisture in the long run, leading to an endless cycle of reapplication.

Finally, it may give the illusion of nourished skin, yet the jelly doesn’t actually hold any healing or medicinal properties. It literally just sits on the skin, creating a waterproof seal. Of course, occlusive products do have some importance in skincare, as they can provide a degree of protection from water, air and external bacteria. Yet, there are so many other products that seal in moisture in the same way as petroleum jelly, that aren’t feared to be carcinogenic, come from a sustainable source and are nourishing, making me think it is time to scrap the jelly and turn to products such as beeswax, shea butter or cocoa butter.

What are your thoughts? Let us know!

Lead image: Pixabay

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