Petroleum jelly skin care products — safe?

Originally Published: March 5, 2010
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Dear Alice,

How and what does the human body do with the petroleum based skin products we apply to our bodies on a daily basis? I'm sure alot of these products are absorbed through the skin. What does the human body do with them? Can it break them down? Do they just flush through our systems? What happens after they are absorbed? What are the long-term effects of using these products? What are the health risks?

Dear Reader,

It's always a good idea to inquire about the short and long term effects of the products we put in, on, and around our bodies. Petroleum jelly, also known as petrolatum, is available in it's pure form but is a common ingredient in moisturizing lotions and cosmetics. People use it to soften up their rough cracked feet, elbows, hands, and lips, and for preventing chafing, and as a diaper ointment. Petrolatum works by sealing the surface of the skin, preventing water loss. It does not moisturize by soaking into the skin. In fact, the petrolatum in cosmetics can only be absorbed by the body through ingestion.

While spreading pure petroleum jelly over cracked heels and elbows is safe enough, there are other products that contain petrolatum that are not as harmless. Antifreeze, diesel gasoline, and many household cleaners contain petrolatum and can be toxic if inhaled. In these formulations, petrolatum actually can be absorbed through the skin. If inhaled or absorbed, products like these can cause reduced blood pressure, headaches, dizziness, weakness, heart palpitations, nausea, fatigue, and harm to organs.

There is a marked difference between industrial petroleum chemicals and commercial/cosmetic skin products that contain petrolatum or petroleum jelly. But because petroleum jelly doesn't actually add moisture to the skin, it might be a good idea to find an oil or lotion that you can use to moisturize, in addition to the protective and water-retaining properties that your good old petroleum jelly provides.

Alice