Restricted Substance: Petrolatum

Follain Restricted Substance: Petrolatum

When we started this Restricted Substance series we knew there were going to be a few ingredients that really struck a nerve with our readers, and because we know just about everyone has a jar of Vaseline in their bathroom, a tube of Aquaphor in the bottom of their purse, or is coveting an oh-so-trendy flavored lip balm, we had a feeling that this month’s substance was going to be a hot button issue. Petrolatum (aka Petroleum Jelly, Paraffin Oil and Mineral Oil) has a crude history [literally, it’s derived from crude oil].  We’re going to dig into some of the reasons why it’s on our Restricted Substance List and introduce you to some options that are even more effective, definitely more sustainable and far less, well, icky.

The history of the stuff you’ve been putting on your lips since well, forever.

Petrolatum was discovered in the 1850’s by a chemist, Robert Chesebrough, who set out to harvest the thick gooey gel found on the walls of oil wells, clean and distill it, and put it in a jar to sell to consumers as a water-tight healing ointment. That was the beginning of, you guessed it, Vaseline, and within 20 years it was being sold all over the USA.

To be fair, Petrolatum is a useful substance, especially for lubricating heavy machinery and making sure the hinges on your kitchen cabinets don’t creak when you open them. But the Environmental Working Group says that there’s petrolatum in one out of every 14 personal care products on the market, and it’s this alarming reality that we take issue with.

Here’s a bit of chem 101 for you: When properly refined, petrolatum has no known health concerns (you’ll see this listed on the label as “white petroleum”). Unfortunately, as is the case with many big industry chemicals is the US, Petrolatum is most often not fully refined. This presents a significant problem as unrefined petrolatum can be contaminated with toxic chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are a part of a chemical group that are thought to contain "reasonably anticipated carcinogens” according to The National Toxicology Program (NTP). This contamination is no big deal in the European Union because the EU requires cosmetic formulators to provide documentation that their petrolatum is 100% refined and free of PAHs. In case you were wondering, no such regulation exists in the US, but you’ve read enough of these by now to know that turning a blind eye is just business as usual over here.

Follain Restricted Substance Petrolatum or Petroleum

Refined or otherwise, here’s why we steer clear of Petrolatum:  

Our bodies can’t metabolize petroleum derived ingredients.  So, when applied topically, they enter our bodies and don’t have a way of getting out, ever. And if the Petrolatum in our personal care products happens to be of the unrefined variety, there is a potential for lipophilic (fat-seeking) PHAs to be stored in our breast tissue, where it most definitely doesn’t belong.

They don’t let your skin breathe.  By design, Petrolatum locks internal moisture in and external moisture out. This is an excellent feature when we want to keep pipes from leaking, but as skin specialists, we know that the skin is a living breathing organ and if you block up the pores with a water-tight product, you also block the skin’s natural respiration process. [Also: blocked pores = trapped dirt and bacteria = breakouts like woah.] If fine lines aren’t your thing it should also be noted that skin suffocation causes the death of skin cells which leads to premature aging.

There’s nothing particularly nourishing about crude oil.  They are cheap filler ingredients that yes, may help seal off wounds, but contamination aside, these petroleum derived ingredients aren’t adding any sort of nutritional value to your skin.

If sustainability is your thing, then Petrolatum should not be your thing.  Crude oil is not renewable, and while we’re all working on jumping onto public transportation more and driving our cars less, we should also be working on divesting in the petroleum/skincare market.

Safe alternatives:

We believe simpler is better when it comes to healing. That’s why we love the time-tested combo of natural beeswax and cold-pressed botanical oils. Similar to the texture of Vaseline or Aquaphor, (but obviously without the bad stuff when sourced consciously) beeswax and oils are natural emollients that form a protective waterproof layer, preventing moisture evaporation from the skin’s surface. Unlike petrolatum, beeswax and oils (as well as natural nut butters like shea and cocoa) don’t restrict the skin’s natural respiration process, and they’re much less likely to clog pores. When combined with soothing botanicals like calendula and chamomile, these ingredients are more effective, more gentle, and definitely more safe than a potentially contaminated ingredient that is far better suited for a mechanic’s shop than your cute little baby’s bottom.

Follain Restricted Substance Petrolatum


Environmental Working Group
Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
The Breast Cancer Fund

Comments on this post ( 1 )

  • May 19, 2016

    Thanks for such a thorough post! Very helpful, especially when trying to explain to friends and family why they need to ditch products (yes, even their beloved Aquaphor!) with petroleum. I’ll be forwarding this link!

    — Amy Flyntz

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