Why We Should Avoid Petroleum Jelly & Petrolatum
(or any other petrochemicals)
What is Petroleum Jelly?
Petroleum jelly is a byproduct of the oil refining process. This means it is not sustainable or eco-friendly, and it also explains some of the potential problems with using it. Petroleum jelly was originally found in the bottom of oil rigs and is further refined for use in the beauty industry. According to packaging and safety info, all of the harmful components are removed before use in beauty or personal care products, but some sources argue that it still contains some harmful components (like hydrocarbons).
Petrolatum, commonly known as petroleum jelly, is a byproduct of petroleum refining. Petrolatum is a soft paraffin or wax mixture sold as a topical skin ointment. It is acknowledged by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an approved over-the-counter skin protectant and is used in the manufacturing of cosmetic skin care.
Petroleum jelly, petrolatum, white petrolatum, soft paraffin/paraffin wax or multi-hydrocarbon, CAS number 8009-03-8, is a semi-solid mixture of hydrocarbons (with carbon numbers mainly higher than 25), originally promoted as a topical ointment for its healing properties.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a U.S. non-profit organization that does environmental and safety studies, says there’s petrolatum in one out of every 14 cosmetic products on the market, including 15 percent of lipsticks and 40 percent of baby lotions and oils. Plus, it’s used as an active ingredient for healing cuts and burns.
The EWG says ’and governments and the CCTFA acknowledge’ there is a risk of contamination from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), cancer-causing chemicals found in crude oil and its by-products. While no studies have ever shown a direct link between petrolatum and cancer, the European Union put numerous grades of petrolatum on a list of dangerous substances. Only highly refined petrolatum can be used in cosmetics there.
How Does Petroleum Jelly Work on Skin?
Petroleum jelly is used in everything from lotions to baby products for its ability to create a protective barrier on the skin and hold in moisture. On labels, it may also appear as Petrolatum, Mineral oil, Liquid paraffin, or Paraffin oil.
While the ability to hold in moisture may seem like a good thing, it can have its downsides as well. Since petroleum jelly is both waterproof and not water soluble, it creates a waterproof barrier on the skin. At first glance, this may sound good, but it also means that it blocks pores and can lock in residue and bacteria. This is also the reason petroleum jelly should not be used on a burn or sunburn, as it locks in heat and can block the body’s ability to heal.
Also, while it certainly gives the appearance of hydrated and moisturized skin, this may be an illusion as there is nothing in petroleum jelly that is actually nourishing the skin.
Petroleum jelly can’t be metabolized by the skin and just sits as a barrier until it wears off. This means that the body isn’t able to gain any benefit from petroleum jelly (like it can from nutrient rich substances like shea butter or cocoa butter), and there is concern that some of the components (like hydrocarbons) may be stored in fat tissue within the body.
In fact, a 2011 study found that:
There is strong evidence that mineral oil hydrocarbons are the greatest contaminant of the human body, amounting to approximately 1 g per person. Possible routes of contamination include air inhalation, food intake, and dermal absorption.
This study was interesting because it evaluated both the long term storage potential of these hydrocarbons in the body, and also a woman’s ability to pass them on to her child through breastfeeding. It looked at fat tissue samples obtained from women during a c-section and also a follow up of breast milk samples and found a strong correlation between the amounts in fat tissue and the amounts passed on in breastmilk.
This suggests the potential for long-term accumulation of these hydrocarbons in the body. The study found no link between nutritional habits and hydrocarbon levels in the body but did find a strong potential link between cosmetic and beauty product use and contamination, suggesting that beauty products may be a major source of hydrocarbon exposure.
Because of the barrier that mineral oil/petroleum jelly creates on the skin, there is also some concern about its potential to cause collagen breakdown (which is the opposite of what most women want!). Essentially, the concern is that when petroleum jelly coats the skin it blocks the skin’s natural ability to breathe and absorb nutrients. This can slow the cell renewal process and cause the skin to pull the necessary moisture and nutrients from within, leading to collagen breakdown over time (aka wrinkles!).
A growing problem in today’s world, estrogen dominance is when the body has high levels of estrogen and proportionately low levels of progesterone to balance it. It is linked to infertility, menstrual problems, accelerated aging, allergies and autoimmune problems as well as nutrient deficiencies, sleep problems and even some types of cancers. Many products (including petroleum jelly) contain chemicals called xenoestrogens which may increase estrogen problems in the body. Studies have shown that these chemicals may act on hormone receptors in the body and lead to estrogen dominance.
More Serious Problems
There is the potential that petroleum based products contain other harmful chemicals like 1,4 dioxane, a known carcinogen found in almost a quarter of all beauty products tested. There is also potential that it may contribute to other types of cancer because of its estrogenic properties mentioned earlier.
Additionally, as drug commercials like to warn us “other more serious complications may occur.” While more serious problems are rare, they can happen and the statistics don’t matter if you are the 1% that ends up with the problem. One of these serious problems is called lipid pneumonia. Though rare, this occurs when small amounts of the petroleum jelly are inhaled and build up in the lungs (as mentioned earlier, the body can’t metabolize or break down petroleum jelly). This creates a potentially serious inflammation in the lungs.
Petroleum and Mineral Oil Might Be Carcinogenic
According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a whopping 80 percent of all beauty products may be contaminated with one or more of the two dozen recognized cosmetic impurities that are linked to cancer and other health concerns. And petroleum- and mineral oil-based products are no exception. The EWG report goes on to say:
“These trace contaminants in petroleum-based ingredients often readily penetrate the skin according to government and industry studies, and their presence in products is not restricted by government safety standards — they are legal at any level.”
And here’s why that’s a problem. The scariest of these possible contaminants is called 1,4 dioxane, an impurity found in 22 percent of all petroleum-based cosmetics that is a possible human carcinogen and known animal carcinogen. How much you’re exposed to depends on the product you’re using: it’s in 82 percent of hair dyes, 45 percent of self-tanners and 36 percent of face moisturizers, for starters.
A 2009 study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology investigated whether mineral oil-based moisturizers might increase the rate at which tumors form. When mice that were at high risk of developing skin cancer received a topical application of 100 mg once a day, five days a week for 17 weeks, the rate of tumor formation significantly increased.
Does it heal skin?
While some beauty companies are promoting petrolatum alternatives, other manufacturers swear by its ability to moisturize and heal. Petrolatum seals off the skin from water and air, and ‘it allows the skin to heal itself,’ says Calgary pharmacist Skip Gibson. He’s vice-president of sales and marketing for George’s Special Dry Skin Cream, a petroleum jelly’ based cream that he helped create. ‘Petroleum jelly is the most effective moisturizer available,’ says Vancouver dermatologist Dr. Richard Thomas. ‘The reduction in water loss makes it easier for the epidermis to continue normal function.’
But there’s a potential downside. A study that was published in Pediatrics in 2000 found that extremely-low-birth-weight infants treated with petroleum jelly were more likely to develop systemic candidiasis; it created a warm, moist place for fungi to grow. ‘Sometimes you want the skin to breathe more,’ says Celeste Lutrario, vice-president of research and development for Burt’s Bees, which does not use petrolatum in its products. She says petrolatum is an occlusive barrier, locking in moisture’ but it does not allow moisture to be absorbed from the atmosphere. For example, lip balms with petrolatum and other petrochemicals can be less moisturizing than those with emollients that enable moisture exchange, contends Lutrario.
Petroleum and Mineral Oil Are Occlusive: Petroleum-based products form a seal on your skin… kinda like plastic wrap.
Petroleum and mineral oil are “occlusive” agents—meaning they seal off the skin from air, water or anything else getting in (or out). Wherever they’re applied, they form an invisible film on the surface that blocks the pores and the skin’s natural respiration process. Anyone who is even slightly acne-prone will have alarm bells ringing over that statement. Blocked pores means trapped dirt and oil—leading to blackheads, pimples, whiteheads, you name it. You might as well cover yourself in Saran Wrap.
Or at least one would think. There’s a lot of contradictory information floating around about the comedogenicity of these ingredients. Some experts say there’s no reason to be scared. A 2005 study in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology argued while industrial grade mineral oil may be comedogenic, cosmetic grade mineral oil is not.
The occlusive nature of petroleum and mineral oil could also be create a warm, moist environment for yeast and fungus to grow. A 2000 study in Pediatrics found that extremely-low-birth-weight infants treated with petroleum jelly were more likely to develop systemic candidiasis.
And remember, NEVER put petroleum- or mineral oil-based products on a sunburn. Because they form a seal, they’ll lock in the heat into your skin, making the burn worse, not better. It could even lead to permanent scarring.
Is there an environmental impact?
Petrolatum comes from crude oil, and as such is not a renewable resource. Of course, the volume of the ingredients in one jar of petroleum jelly or a bottle of body moisturizer doesn’t come close to that used to fuel cars or run factories. Still, Health Canada is currently investigating the environmental impact of petrolatum in cosmetics.
Concern for our planet and its resources is another reason why some companies are using oils from coconuts, sunflowers and olives in the formulation of their products. But these oils have an environmental footprint, too: They come from farmland, potentially displacing food crops.
Alternatives to petrolatum in cosmetics are more expensive and trickier to formulate. Right now, petrolatum is cheap, plentiful and generally safe, and it mixes up easily in the lab to create the products we use every day it’s not going anywhere soon.
Alternatives To Petroleum Products for the Skin
Thankfully, there are many great alternatives to petroleum jelly and mineral oil that help increase moisture on the skin and provide nourishment as well. The best part? Most of them can be used alone and you don’t even have to make anything!
If you are looking for a simple alternative to petroleum jelly or Vaseline®, try:
Shea Butter– A natural skin superfood that is high in Vitamins A, E and F. It also contains beneficial fatty acids that nourish skin and it may reduce skin inflammation and increase collagen production. It is excellent on its own or in homemade beauty products. (This is the one I like).
Cocoa Butter-A great source of antioxidants and beneficial fatty acids, cocoa butter is another great product for skin. There is even some evidence that it may reduce the signs of aging. (This is the brand I’ve used)
Beeswax– A great substitute for the waterproof and protective properties of petroleum jelly without the hydrocarbons. Though not usually used alone, beeswax can be blended into homemade beauty products for its skin-protective ability and is especially good in lip balms and body creams.
Coconut Oil– Coconut oil has so many benefits, internal and external, and it can be great for the skin. It does cause breakouts in some people, so I always suggest testing on a small area of skin first, but it is a source of skin-nourishing fatty acids, lauric acid and anti-inflammatory compounds.
Almond Oil– A liquid oil that is fragrance free and nourishing to skin.
Jojoba Oil-A perfect choice for skin care because it naturally resembles sebum, the oily substance naturally produced by the body to nourish and protect skin. I like to mix Jojoba Oil with shea butter for a simple natural lotion.