Alongside lanolin, mineral oil, and dimethicone, petrolatum – also known as petroleum jelly – is a common emollient often used in a variety of skincare products as a moisturizing agent. Odorless and colorless, it has an inherently long shelf life making it a popular ingredient in cosmetics. It is generally well-tolerated although some patients with sensitive skin may develop allergic reactions and there are important safety considerations to keep in mind especially in the case of improperly refined petrolatum.
As a medication, petrolatum is frequently used to treat or prevent dry, rough, scaly, or itchy skin and minor skin irritations, including diaper rash and skin burns. A byproduct of petroleum refining, the compound forms a water-repellant film around the applied area creating an effective barrier against the evaporation of the skin’s natural moisture and foreign particles or microorganisms that may cause infection. Petrolatum can be particularly beneficial to supporting post-surgery healing.
The substance can also be used as a moisturizing agent for the face, hands, and body; specifically, petroleum jelly can be used to ease dry nose irritation, cracked heels, and chapped lips. Its uses are not limited to humans as petrolatum has been found to alleviate discomfort associated with cracks in pet paws as well.
Properly refined, petrolatum has no known health effects. However, the compound is not always fully refined and can contain toxic chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are byproducts of organic material combustion. The National Toxicology Program (NTP) considers PAHs a class of chemical that contain reasonably anticipated carcinogens meanwhile, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) lists 14 PAHs as probable or possible carcinogens and one as a known carcinogenic substance.
A study conducted on Long Island, NY found that women with high levels of PAH-DNA adducts exhibited a 50% greater risk of breast cancer. The formation of PAH-DNA adducts itself has been linked to cancer development and is an established indicator of PAH exposure. Additional studies have reported that skin contact with PAHs over extended periods of time is associated with cancer.
As a result, the European Union classifies petrolatum as a carcinogen and restricts its use in cosmetics. Petrolatum can only be used in cosmetics “if the full refining history is known and it can be shown that the substance from which it is produced is not a carcinogen.” Meanwhile, there are no such restrictions or requirements in the United States or Canada leaving the quality of petrolatum content in personal care products unknown.
The commonly used emollient petrolatum has many benefits in terms of skin healing and protection, however, its safety as an ingredient largely depends on the degree of its refinement.
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