Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Friend or Foe?; Petrolatum

Petrolatum is one of the most common ingredients listed in skincare products sold on every continent. You'll find it in just about every product that markets itself as being "healing" or "protecting" including familiar ones like Chapstick and Vaseline.

In it's raw form, it was accidently discovered by oil rig workmen who would use this refinery by-product to seal over wounds and burns. Petrolatum was taken from it's raw form and refined by chemist Robert Chesebrough which made his previous project of distilling whale oil obsolete. Many forms have since been adopted to range in uses from treating burns, wounds, chapped skin, and wind burn to other uses as an overall, all-purpose humectant.


The moisturizing property of petrolatum is a bit deceptive.

The molecular structure is quite large. Too large, in fact, to permeate the skins surface structure. Which means, it does NOT dissolve into skin. Instead, it just rests on the surface creating a moist-like texture, like a lubricant.

Before the advent of water-based lubricants and latex condoms, products with petrolatum as the key ingredient were used for sexual lubrication. Of course, these products should never be used for this purpose now, as petrolatum has absolutely no compatibility with prophylactics and is not safe for use inside the body. Although, it can cause no immediate health risks, further studies need to be done regarding ingestion. Someone should tell all those beauty queens to quit rubbing it on their teeth.

So, why is it considered "healing" and "protecting"? When petrolatum goes onto the skin, it immediately begins melting, thus stretching over large dermal surfaces and creating a shield against foreign elements like dust and pollution. Mostly, these foreign agents never get a chance to sink through and affect the skin beneath. But skin is full of tiny little holes called pores that secrete sweat and oils produced by the body. So if these oils have nowhere to go, they stay in limbo between the skin and the petrolatum. These are the true moisturizers.

Imagine this collaboration like putting a lid over a pot roast. Your skin is basically marinating in its own juices.

Which, again, isn't so bad. Especially if you want to be savory... I guess.

For this reason, petrolatum is ideal for use when "healing" or protecting against infection is the goal. Such as for tattoos and diaper rash, cuts and small wounds or excessively dry skin.

One thing I've always noticed about these kinds of products is that they're awfully inexpensive. Mostly because the process of making petrolatum isn't terribly difficult or costly. Or, for that matter, terribly intentional. Let's remember, it's a by-product of crude oil. That stuff used to make plastic, rubber, polymers and gasoline. Which always makes me wonder why anyone would be able to charge much for products with petrolatum in it. It's cheap. Really cheap, in fact. Retail value of 1oz of white petrolatum is about $1.

Have you ever put on a really expensive facial moisturizer and then found that your makeup needs to be constantly touched up because it feels like it's been moving around? Petrolatum. Over $100 an ounce of product is literally sliding around on your face.

Because of it's low melting point (75 degrees Fahrenheit as compared to the body's stasis point of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), petrolatum will continue to melt throughout the day. Particularly on hot ones. That would be the "greasy" feeling on your hands after applying lotion to your... whatever.

Most body care products use this to their advantage because it creates the sensation of being doused in moisture, but again, it's a false sense of satisfaction. There are products that have petrolatum as it's key ingredient, and that's fine, but I'd recommend seeking out products with true emollients the body will recognize and absorb like an essential oil. Although, you might find, since they're more difficult to cultivate, the price points of such items may be significantly higher.

If you're ever curious about what products contain petrolatum, simply flip over the package of whatever skincare item you happen to have. If it's in the first 5 ingredients listed, kindly check the price and you'll know if this product is a bosom buddie, or a frenemy.

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