Petroleum: The Misused Miracle

Petroleum. Ever wonder how it found its place in skin care? As it stands today, most skin care products contain petroleum.  Here’s a peek into why.

Petroleum jelly has been around for more than a century and is a staple in almost every household.  It is used for everything.  My grandmother used it as a hair pomade, but looking back at old pictures, my hair was big, dry and poufy all the time, without the slightest bit of shine.  That didn’t make any sense to me since Vaseline is so heavy and greasy.  My mother used it as a moisturizer for many years, yet always suffered from dry patches.

As I studied cosmetic ingredients, I learned that my family has been misusing petroleum for years.

Petroleum jelly is not a moisturizer!  Yes, it is often recommended for dry skin and eczema but only as a skin protectant. Petroleum jelly helps to prevent transepidermal water loss (TEWL) by trapping water on the skin. The same goes for mineral oil, a petroleum derivative and the most commonly used primary ingredient in cosmetics. They sit on the surface of the skin and evaporate. This is why we feel the need to reapply lotions and lip balms throughout the day.  Our skin will not absorb them.

Many beauty companies will make a claim about the performance of a product and mention one ingredient like shea butter or argan oil to get your attention, but they do not mention that only .01% of this ingredient is in the product, and everything else is made in a lab – which is fine, if that is what you’re told you’re paying for. But I’m against overselling and false advertising.

If an ad says, “Made with 100%, all natural shea butter,” check the label. If shea butter is one of the top three ingredients, great! Odds are you are buying an awesome new moisturizer. But very often, the advertised ingredient appears at the bottom of the label, because only traces occur in the product. Ideally, products would be made of natural oils and butters, as these ingredients are more likely to mimic the skin’s natural sebum. But the downside is that they are prone to spoilage and many of them must be imported, which increases costs – costs that we, consumers, are often unwilling and unable to take on.

Petroleum jelly has many great uses, but it is inaccurate to call it a moisturizer. Companies use petroleum because it’s easy. It won’t spoil. It’s cost effective for them and for you. The added advantage to the company is that consumers must reapply often to get any benefit, so this ensures repetitive use. In a perfect world, shea butter would grow in our backyards, and we would make our own moisturizers and hair products. But that’s not the case. So the best course of action is to stay informed so that you know what you are buying – and how to use it.

Thamara Lamarre
Skincare Columnist / The Record

Thamara Lamarre is a skincare columnist at The Record. She began studying skin care seven years ago. She now holds numerous certifications and is licensed in three states as a medical aesthetician and a registered electrologist. She believes in finding a balance between both medical and holistic therapies.