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So What’s Up with Petrolatum?

July 29, 2009

Petroleum Jelly, Paraffin Wax, mineral oil and White Oil were once revered as the answer to all of our moisturizing wows. They were available in different viscosities, different shades from white to yellow and different melting points enabling formulators to create something that felt unique and special yet was easy to make and reproduce time after time after time. Our babies were bathed in it, moisturized with it and protected by it. It was liquid gold.  Indeed, Petroleum based oils were some of the first ingredients to have been used to protect the skin with Egyptian records referencing petroleum type oils as far back as 5000 BC – and they weren’t the first, you see extracting oils from nuts, seeds and plants took a bit longer to work out. So what happened? Why did we fall out of love with this good and natural oil?

To answer that question we need to cast away our naughties shackles and go back to a time when our cosmetics and personal care products were mainly animal derived.

Americans captured the first whale back in the early 1700’s hailing the start of the whale oil revolution.  The value of the oil was quickly recognized and a pseudo global market was established as commercial whale fishing tried to keep up with demand for Spermaceti for (among other uses) candles, soaps and face creams.  Whale oil remained the ingredient of choice throughout the 18th, 19th and early 20th century until something changed.  Petroleum was on the rise and people started to see that it was possible to get their cosmetic fix without the spilling of blood – evolution? I guess you could see it like that.  Indeed one famous chemist, Robert Chesebrough who lost his job due to the demise of the sperm oil market went on to develop Vaseline (a petroleum-based product) and opened his first factory in the late 1800’s.  Chesebrough is still a major player in the global cosmetics market after its merger with Ponds (1955) and later still its acquisition by Unilever (1987).

So with our conscious calling and an alternative waiting in the wings we move into the 1900’s without eyes fixed firmly on the BIG SCREEN!

Let’s jump to 1910. The year that Elizabeth Arden’s red door became open for business, when you were either a Ponds Cold Cream or a Nivea girl and Max Factor was every girl’s best friend.  Apparently it was around this time (1915)  that chemist T.L Williams, after watching sister Mabel apply Petroleum Jelly to her eye lashes, developed Mascara (which later became known as Maybelline).

The rise of the big screen whets the appetites of women all over the world for brighter, tighter and younger looking skin. If they couldn’t buy it, they would make it often mixing petroleum jelly with perfume and applying that to the face. As you can imagine this wasn’t an ideal solution to any women’s skin care woes and often lead to skin rashes and irritation.  Creams around the world were being made en mass by emulsifying petroleum-based ingredients. Creams were lighter and easier to use than the homemade remedies and were now more affordable than ever before. Petroleum was also revolutionizing the treatment of burns (providing a barrier to infection) and chronic dry skin conditions as it was taken into the bosom of the pharmaceutical industries – just like being back in ancient Egypt! Petroleum was everywhere and the world was loving it.

OK, so we were in love in the early 1900’s. What happened next?

The green revolution.  Petroleum wax is an oil based product and while it is 100% natural and existed and was used long before the idea of a chemical industry was conceived, it is not “Green”.  The mining, the refining, the packaging and the transporting of this liquid gold is environmentally costly requiring a massive amount of infrastructure and energy to process and resulting in a product that is carbon intensive if burned (Petroleum is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons which when burned release carbon by the bucket load into the atmosphere).  Now we started to hate petroleum long before the mighty Al Gore stepped up to the table with his “Inconvenient Truth” movie and big carbon fact book so what else sent us over the edge?

The move to plant based cosmetics started a while back but really got some momentum in the mid to late nineties. It was around this time that stories started to emerge about the dangerous chemicals that were in the very products that we had adored for so long. Petroleum was one “family”  of chemicals in the “no go zone” blamed for producing skin rashes, for suffocating the skin, for causing acne, for producing allergies, for delivering toxic chemicals further into the skin. This influx of negativity proved enough to turn many a consumers’ stomach and slowly but surely people moved towards plant-based skincare. At the same time, companies were springing up, building up petroleum free product ranges, and marketing themselves as a solution to the petroleum problem. Put into the mix a gulf war and growing global instability and you have all of the ingredients for a sea change in public opinion. Petroleum was on the sideline.

So was this all a conspiracy? A hollow ploy to get us worried and buying natural?  Well, it looks like that could have had a part to play. I mean, take a look at the label on your pharmaceutical products and you will see that the petroleum family of ingredients are still being used in products to treat the very worst of skin conditions, treat the very old and the very young and wouldn’t you think that an industry based on caring and nurturing would be the first to move if these ingredients were really that bad?

But just like the whale issue back in the 1930’s and 40’s, the time was and still is right for a change. Take away global politics, in-house motivations from segments of the cosmetics industry and yes, a few adverse reactions from using some industrial grade petroleum rather than the cosmetics / Pharma grade and you still have a reason to move with the times. The fact remains that drilling for oil, a resource that is going to run out, is no longer exciting, it is downright worrying. The time for something else has come.

So, the time for petroleum has passed? Well, not really.  Petroleum may no longer be fashionable but it is effective. Yes it does form a barrier on the skin which could make it sweat and thus become irritated but only if it is used neat and on large areas.  Pharmaceutical grade petroleum products are some of the safest of all cosmetic ingredients as they are ultra pure and are often pretty inert (chemically un-reactive) resulting in longer shelf life’s than most plant based ingredients and also less likely to cause an allergic reaction. They are a versatile chemical family able to provide anything from an almost dry and light feel to a heavy and occlusive (barrier forming) feel. Great if you have nappy rash, chapped hands or dry lips! Just like that daggy pair of tracky bottoms that you save for a sloppy Sunday, petroleum based cosmetics are going to hang around for a while yet but won’t be winning any cosmetic Oscars.

The Realize Beauty verdict is this. The petroleum oil / wax based chemical family has a lot to offer the cosmetics industry and has a long history of safe and effective use. We have found no evidence to back up the fear stories that abound online about petroleum oil/wax’s cancer causing properties, irritation potential and skin suffocating ability although we understand that some allergies to this range of ingredients do exist. However, we agree that environmentally there are now better options to be explored in the realms of plant and live animal-based chemistry – think Lanolin and Jojoba Oil.  One last word on the subject is this, if your motivation for going Petroleum free is environmental, please remember than the growing, harvesting, processing, transporting and manufacturing of plant based ingredients doesn’t come guilt free. The only sustainable solution is for us all to use less and that may or may not be an option for you!

PS: There are many other cosmetic ingredients that are derived from petroleum – propylene Glycol, SLES, Glycerine etc.  This article is not looking at these ingredients as here we are just focusing on the emolient properties of the petroleum oils and waxes.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Gemma permalink
    July 29, 2009 4:30 pm

    Mmm…it’s an interesting topic. I try to avoid all petrolatum products with this ingredient/s.
    An increasing amount of people are becoming aware of the long term consequences this ingredient has on the endocrine system.

    Everything that comes in contact with your body can be harmful unless you know that it is made from natural ingredients. Within the cosmetics world, there are many petroleum based products that contain a harmful chemical called 1,4-dioxane. This chemical is directly linked with skin cancer, and it must be avoided at all costs.

    Here is another interesting article –

    Toothpaste is one of the many culprits that contains propylene glycol. Also it is coming out that is does cause auto immune diseases. More and more people are also coming forward with thyroid problems.

    Today’s technology brings about a new scientific awareness that can detect diseases like this. Fifty years ago we did not have the technology to research the side effects of this cheap filler’s effects.

    I for one will not be using anything with petroleum in. Of course companies would say that it is safe, as more than half of their capital gain would be compromised.

  2. RealizeBeautyEd permalink
    July 29, 2009 6:31 pm

    Hi Gemma,
    Propylene glycol is based on Petroleum but isn’t the ingredient that I am talking about here. These are the petroleum oils and waxes such as Vaseline. You are right to be concerned about Dioxane but this chemical is a bi-product of ethoxylation and these waxes are not usually ethoxylated. I can see where the confusion can come and of course avoiding Petroleum based products is probably better for the environment in the long run.
    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I am sure that our readers will find it valuable.


  1. So What’s Up with Petrolatum?

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