For generations, petroleum jellies and salves have held a hallowed space in many medicine chests. Perhaps your grandparents used it for a dozen skin care needs and passed that habit down to your parents and now you.
Before you mindlessly reach for that square jar again, or believe the myth that it is a skin panacea from birth to old age, it’s time to take the halo off of petroleum jelly.
What It’s Made Of
Petroleum jelly is made from mineral oils and wax. As its name suggests, the mineral oil used is a petroleum byproduct. Other petroleum products include the gasoline for your car, plastics, and synthetic fabrics.
There are many carcinogens in crude petroleum, so the better brands are highly purified to remove all contaminants. That may or may not be true for off-brands and discount knock-offs, so buyer beware.
Petroleum jelly works by creating an artificial barrier that coats the skin and keeps moisture in. That’s why smearing it on can feel good, and feel like you are hydrating your skin. However, it does nothing to actually deliver new moisture, and can be have mixed results if you have a skin condition.
Why it Can Make Your Skin Condition Worse
Unfortunately, petroleum jelly is often the worst thing you can use on your skin if you have a chronic skin condition such as eczema, TSW, acne, rosacea or psoriasis. The oils and waxes block skin pores, which means it does not allow the skin to breathe. It also does not allow the skin to vent heat and perspiration, which is necessary to regulate body temperature and alleviate many symptoms of inflamed skin.
Also, jars of the jelly can easily become contaminated with bacteria. That’s one reason why you should also never take petroleum jelly internally or insert it into any part of your body. A study showed that 40% of women who used petroleum jelly as a vaginal lubricant suffered from bacterial vaginosis as opposed to only 18% who did not.
If you use it on unwashed skin, it can seal in dirt and bacteria and prevent proper cleansing.
It can also upset the skin’s microbiome and allow harmful organisms to proliferate. If you have broken, cracked, or damaged skin, this could lead to secondary infections.
Using petroleum jelly around or inside of your nose can actually lead to aspirational pneumonia if it is inhaled. This is especially true for infants and children. Use a good humidifier or vaporizer instead!
If you notice your skin doesn’t tolerate petroleum jelly well, or your skin condition gets worse after using it, you may have an allergy to petroleum. Skin symptoms of a petroleum allergy include redness, itchiness, and rashes.
It’s hard to give up old skincare habits and the products we grew up with. In this case, though, there are lots of great alternatives. If you are looking for a natural skin product with a similar consistency to petroleum jelly and a bit of barrier protection, try coconut oil. Cocoa and shea butter are also great choices. You may find natural oils feel better and give you a more natural glow, while keeping your skin healthy.
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About the Author
Olivia Hsu Friedman, LAc, Dipl.OM, DACM, Cert. TCMDerm, is the owner of Amethyst Holistic Skin Solutions and treats Acne, Eczema, Psoriasis, and TSW. Olivia treats patients via video conferencing using only herbal medicine. Olivia is Chair of the Board of Directors of the American Society of Acupuncturists, serves on the Advisory Board of LearnSkin, and is a faculty member of the Chicago Integrative Eczema Group sponsored by the National Eczema Association.