Petroleum jelly

Petroleum jelly, petrolatum, white petrolatum, soft paraffin, or multi-hydrocarbon, CAS number 8009-03-8, is a semi-solid hydrocarbon C15H15N,[1] chemical name 1,1,2-Trimethylbenzeindole,[2] originally promoted as a topical ointment for its healing properties.

After petroleum jelly became a medicine chest staple, consumers began to use it for many ailments, as well as cosmetic purposes, including toenail fungus, genital rashes (non-STD), nosebleeds, diaper rash, and chest colds. Its folkloric medicinal value as a "cure-all" has since been limited by better scientific understanding of appropriate and inappropriate uses. It is recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an approved over-the-counter (OTC) skin protectant and remains widely used in cosmetic skin care.


The raw material for petroleum jelly was discovered in 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania, US, on some of the country's first oil rigs. Workers disliked the paraffin-like material forming on rigs because it caused them to malfunction, but they used it on cuts and burns because they believed that it hastened healing.[3][4]

Robert Chesebrough, a young chemist whose previous work of distilling fuel from the oil of sperm whales had been rendered obsolete by petroleum, went to Titusville to see what new materials had commercial potential. Chesebrough took the unrefined black "rod wax", as the drillers called it, back to his laboratory to refine it and explore potential uses. He discovered that by distilling the lighter, thinner oil products from the rod wax, he could create a light-colored gel. Chesebrough patented the process of making petroleum jelly by U.S. Patent 127,568 in 1872. The process involved vacuum distillation of the crude material followed by filtration of the still residue through bone char.

Chesebrough traveled around New York demonstrating the product to encourage sales by burning his skin with acid or an open flame, then spreading the ointment on his injuries and showing his past injuries healed, he claimed, by his miracle product. He opened his first factory in 1870 in Brooklyn using the name Vaseline.[3]

Physical properties

Petroleum jelly is petrolatum, a hydrocarbon, C15 H15 N,[5] (1,1,2-Trimethylbenzeindole) with a boiling point of 322 °C (610 °F) and a melting point between 70 and 80 °C (160 and 175 °F).[6] It is flammable only when heated to liquid; then the fumes will light, not the liquid itself, so a wick material like leaves, bark, or small twigs is needed to ignite petroleum jelly. It is colorless or has a pale yellow color (when not highly distilled), translucent, and devoid of taste and smell when pure. It does not oxidize on exposure to the air and is not readily acted on by chemical reagents. It is insoluble in water. It is soluble in dichloromethane, chloroform, benzene, diethyl ether, carbon disulfide and oil of turpentine.[7][8] It is a semi-solid, in that it holds its shape indefinitely like a solid, but it can be forced to take the shape of its container without breaking apart, like a liquid, though it does not flow on its own.

Depending on the specific application of petroleum jelly, it may be USP, B.P., or Ph. Eur. grade. This pertains to the processing and handling of the petroleum jelly so it is suitable for medicinal and personal-care applications.

Comparison with glycerol

Because they feel similar when applied to human skin, there is a common misconception that petroleum jelly and glycerol (glycerine) are physically similar. Petroleum jelly is a non-polar hydrophobic (water-repelling) hydrocarbon and insoluble in water. Glycerol is an alcohol that is strongly hydrophilic (water-attracting): by continuously absorbing moisture from the air (hygroscopic), it produces the feeling of wetness on the skin. This feeling of wetness is similar to the feeling of greasiness produced by petroleum jelly.


Most uses of petroleum jelly exploit its lubricating and coating properties. Including dry lips and dry skin. Below are some Examples of the uses of petroleum jelly.

Medical treatment

Vaseline brand First Aid Petroleum Jelly, or carbolated petroleum jelly containing phenol to give the jelly additional antibacterial effect, has been discontinued. During World War II, a variety of petroleum jelly called red veterinary petrolatum, or Red Vet Pet for short, was often included in life raft survival kits. Acting as a sunscreen, it provides protection against ultraviolet rays.[9]

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends keeping skin injuries moist with petroleum jelly to reduce scarring.[10] A verified medicinal use is to protect and prevent moisture loss of the skin of a patient in the initial post-operative period following laser skin resurfacing.[11][12]

There is one case report published in 1994 indicating petroleum jelly should not be applied to the inside of the nose due to the risk of lipid pneumonia, but this was only ever reported in one patient.[13] However, petroleum jelly is used extensively by otolaryngologistsear, nose, and throat surgeonsfor nasal moisture and epistaxis treatment, and to combat nasal crusting. Large studies have found petroleum jelly applied to the nose for short durations to have no significant side effects.[14][15][16]

Historically, it was also consumed for internal use and even promoted as "Vaseline confection".[17][18]

Skin and hair care

Most petroleum jelly today is used as an ingredient in skin lotions and cosmetics, providing various types of skin care and protection by minimizing friction or reducing moisture loss, or by functioning as a grooming aid, e. g. pomade.

Preventing moisture loss

By reducing moisture loss, petroleum jelly can prevent chapped hands and lips, and soften nail cuticles.

This property is exploited to provide heat insulation: petroleum jelly can be used to keep swimmers warm in water when training or during channel crossings or long ocean swims. It can prevent chilling of the face due to evaporation of skin moisture during cold weather outdoor sports.

Hair grooming

In the first part of the twentieth century, petroleum jelly, either pure or as an ingredient, was also popular as a hair pomade. When used in a 50/50 mixture with pure beeswax, it makes an effective moustache wax.[19]

Skin lubrication

Petroleum jelly can be used to reduce the friction between skin and clothing during various sport activities, for example to prevent chafing of the seat region of cyclists or the nipples of long distance runners wearing loose T-shirts, and is commonly used in the groin area of wrestlers and footballers.

Petroleum jelly is commonly used as a personal lubricant because it does not dry out like water-based lubricants, and has a distinctive "feel", different from that of K-Y and related methylcellulose products.[20] However, it is not recommended for use with condoms during sexual activity because it swells latex and thus increases the chance of rupture. It is also not recommended for vaginal intercourse because it may increase the risk of yeast infection and bacterial vaginosis in women.

Product care and protection


Petroleum jelly can be used to coat corrosion-prone items such as metallic trinkets, non-stainless steel blades, and gun barrels prior to storage as it serves as an excellent and inexpensive water repellent. It is used as an environmentally friendly underwater antifouling coating for motor boats and sailing yachts. It was recommended in the Porsche owner's manual as a preservative for light alloy (alleny) anodized Fuchs wheels to protect them against corrosion from road salts and brake dust. “Every three months (after regular cleaning) the wheels should be coated with petroleum jelly.”[21]


It can be used to finish and protect wood, much like a mineral oil finish. It is used to condition and protect smooth leather products like bicycle saddles, boots, motorcycle clothing, and used to put a shine on patent leather shoes[22] (when applied in a thin coat and then gently buffed off).


Petroleum jelly can be used to lubricate zippers and slide rules. It was also recommended by Porsche in maintenance training documentation for lubrication (after cleaning) of "Weatherstrips on Doors, Hood, Tailgate, Sun Roof". The publication states "…before applying a new coat of lubricant…" "Only acid-free lubricants may be used, for example: glycerine, Vaseline, tire mounting paste, etc. These lubricants should be rubbed in, and excessive lubricant wiped off with a soft cloth."[23] It is used in bullet lubricant compounds.[24] Petrolatum is also used as a light lubricating grease [25] as well as an anti-seize assembling grease.[26]

Industrial production processes

Petroleum jelly is a useful material when incorporated into candle wax formulas. The petroleum jelly softens the overall blend, allows the candle to incorporate additional fragrance oil, and facilitates adhesion to the sidewall of the glass. Petroleum jelly is used to moisten nondrying modelling clay such as plasticine, as part of a mix of hydrocarbons including those with greater (paraffin wax) and lesser (mineral oil) molecular weights. It is used as a tack reducer additive to printing inks to reduce paper lint "picking" from uncalendered paper stocks. It can be used as a release agent for plaster molds and castings. It is used in the leather industry as a waterproofing cream.



Petroleum jelly is mixed with a high proportion of strong inorganic chlorates due to it acting as a plasticizer and a fuel source. An example of this is Cheddite C which consists of a ratio of 9:1, KClO3 to petroleum jelly. This mixture is unable to detonate without the use of a blasting cap. It is also used as a stabiliser in the manufacture of the propellant Cordite.

Mechanical, barrier functions

Petroleum jelly can be used to fill copper or fibre-optic cables using plastic insulation to prevent the ingress of water, see icky-pick.

Petroleum jelly can be used to coat the inner walls of terrariums to prevent animals crawling out and escaping.

A stripe of petroleum jelly can be used to prevent the spread of a liquid. For example, it can be applied close to the hairline when using a home hair dye kit to prevent the hair dye from irritating or staining the skin. It is also used to prevent diaper rash.

Surface cleansing

Petroleum jelly is used to gently clean a variety of surfaces, ranging from makeup removal from faces to tar stain removal from leather.

Pet care

Petroleum jelly is used to moisturize the paws of dogs,[27]. It is a common ingredient in hairball remedies for domestic cats. [28][29]


Petroleum jelly is very sticky and hard to remove from non-biological surfaces with the usual and customary cleaning agents typically found in the home. It may be dissolved with paint thinner or other petroleum solvents such as acetone,[30] which dissolves many plastics.

Petroleum jelly is slightly soluble in alcohol.[31] To avoid damage to plastics and minimize ventilation issues, isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol can be used to remove petroleum jelly from most surfaces. Isopropyl alcohol is inert to most household surfaces, including almost every plastic, and removes petroleum jelly efficiently. While alcohol causes fewer ventilation problems than petroleum solvents, ventilation is still recommended, especially if large surface areas are involved.

Petroleum jelly is also soluble in lower-molecular-weight oils. Using an oil to dissolve the petroleum jelly first can render it more soluble to solvents and soaps that would not dissolve pure petroleum jelly. Vegetable oils such as canola and olive oil are commonly used to aid in the removal of petroleum jelly from hair and skin.[32]


In 2015, German consumer watchdog Stiftung Warentest analyzed cosmetics containing mineral oils. After developing a new detection method they found high concentrations of Mineral Oil Aromatic Hydrocarbons (MOHA) and even polyaromatics in products containing mineral oils with Vaseline products containing the most MOHA of all tested cosmetics (up to 9%).[33] The European Food Safety Authority sees MOHA and polyaromatics as possibly carcinogenic.[33] Based on the results, Stiftung Warentest warns not to use Vaseline or any product that is based on mineral oils for lip care.


  3. The History of Vaseline Petroleum Jelly began in the Pennsylvania Oil Fields!, Drake Well Museum pamphlet, copyright 1996 by Holigan Group Ltd, Dallas, Texas.
  4. "Vasoline corporate history page". Retrieved 15 July 2015. ...Chesebrough noticed that oil workers would smear their skin with the residue from their drills, as it had the property to heal their cuts and burns. He got curious and took some Rod Wax home where he started experimenting with it...
  7. "Petrolatum (white)". International Programme on Chemical Safety and the Commission of the European Communities. March 2002. Retrieved August 5, 2011.
  8. Vaseline (Petroleum Jelly) Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) (June 15, 2007). Inc. Retrieved August 5, 2011.
  9. MacEachern, William; Jillson, Otis (1964). "A Practical Sunscreen – 'Red Vet Pet'". Archives of Dermatology. 89 (1): 147–50. doi:10.1001/archderm.1964.01590250153027. PMID 14070829.
  10. "Proper wound care: How to minimize a scar". American Academy of Dermatology. 2017. Retrieved 28 January 2019.
  11. Khan, Jemshed A. (2008). "CO2 Laser Resurfacing Immediate Postoperative Care Prior to Complete Epithelialization". In Hartstein, Morris E.; Holds, John B.; Massry, Guy G. (eds.). Pearls and Pitfalls in Cosmetic Oculoplastic Surgery. p. 417. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-69007-0_136. ISBN 978-0-387-25389-3.
  12. Jeong, Jeung-Tae; Kye, Young-Chul (2001). "Resurfacing of Pitted Facial Acne Scars with a Long-Pulsed Er:YAG Laser". Dermatologic Surgery. 27 (2): 107–10. doi:10.1046/j.1524-4725.2001.00201.x. PMID 11207680.
  13. Brown, A. C.; Slocum, P. C.; Putthoff, S. L.; Wallace, W. E.; Foresman, B. H. (1994). "Exogenous lipoid pneumonia due to nasal application of petroleum jelly". Chest. 105 (3): 968–9. doi:10.1378/chest.105.3.968. PMID 8131586.
  14. Loughran S, Spinou E, Clement WA, et al. A prospective, single-blind, randomized controlled trial of petroleum jelly/Vaseline for recurrent paediatric epistaxis. Clin Otolaryngol 2004; 29:266–269.
  15. Wang, Y. P.; Wang, M. C.; Chen, Y. C.; Leu, Y. S.; Lin, H. C.; Lee, K. S. (2011). "The effects of Vaseline gauze strip, Merocel, and Nasopore on the formation of synechiae and excessive granulation tissue in the middle meatus and the incidence of major postoperative bleeding after endoscopic sinus surgery". Journal of the Chinese Medical Association. 74 (1): 16–21. doi:10.1016/j.jcma.2010.09.001. PMID 21292198.
  16. Repanos, C; McDonald, S. E.; Sadr, A. H. (2009). "A survey of postoperative nasal packing among UK ENT surgeons". European Archives of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology. 266 (10): 1575–7. doi:10.1007/s00405-009-0978-8. PMID 19373485.
  17. "Vaseline". Lowcountry Digital Library. Archived from the original on September 3, 2014. Retrieved 1 September 2014.
  18. Chesebrough Manufacturing Co (1884). Petroleum: Its Origin, Uses, and Future Development : a Highly Interesting Sketch. Chesebrough Manufacturing Company. p. 18.
  19. Ted Sedman (2007), D.I.Y. Moustache Wax, Handlebar Club, retrieved 2017-08-26
  20. "Condoms Fact Sheet". June 4, 2011. Retrieved August 5, 2011. The oils in … Vaseline … will make latex fall apart.
  21. P. 61 Porsche Owner’s Manual 911 Turbo 911 Carrera WKD91102187
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  23. P.16 928S Maintenance and General Repairs - Service Training Center WKS006021
  24. Fryxell, Glen. "From Ingot to Target: A Cast Bullet Guide for Handgunners". pp. Chapter 5, Cast bullet lubrication.
  30. "A solvent for petroleum jelly aka Vaseline - Model Rail Forum". Retrieved 2012-10-18. General Purpose thinners, acetone or any petroleum based thinner, or even MEK will remove Vaseline.
  31. Beringer, Paul; Troy, David A.; Remington, Joseph P. (2006). Remington, the science and practice of pharmacy. Hagerstwon, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. p. 1077. ISBN 978-0-7817-4673-1. Retrieved 2012-12-30. Solubility--Insoluble in water; almost insoluble in cold or hot alcohol or in cold dehydrated alcohol; freely soluble in benzene, carbon disulfide, chloroform, or turpentine oil; soluble in ether, solvent hexane, or in most fixed and volatile oils, the degree of solubility in these solvents varying with the composition of the petrolatum.
  32. "How to Remove Petroleum Jelly from Hair Using Olive Oil and Detergent". Retrieved 2013-02-04.
  33. Warentest, Stiftung. "Mineralöle in Kosmetika - Kritische Stoffe in Cremes, Lippenpflegeprodukten und Vaseline - Stiftung Warentest".
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