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Is Petroleum Jelly Good for Eczema?

Petroleum jelly (such as the popular VaselineⓇ brand) is an inexpensive, readily-available product that has been embraced by skincare influencers. It is also commonly found as an ingredient in skincare products and over-the-counter eczema medications, where it’s usually listed as “petrolatum.” 

How safe is petroleum jelly, though?  Are petrolatum-based products such as VaselineⓇ good for eczema?

The answer is yes–most of the time. Keep reading to learn more about petroleum jelly and its benefits to eczema sufferers.  

What Is Petroleum Jelly?

Petroleum jelly–also known as petrolatum, white petrolatum, or soft paraffin–is a translucent, semi-solid, gelatinous substance left behind by the crude oil refinement process. Impurities are filtered out of petroleum jelly through a careful, multi-stage process that renders it odorless, tasteless, and nearly colorless. 

A Long History

While commercial preparations of petroleum jelly date to1870, humans have been using petroleum jelly for centuries–maybe even millennia!

In 1273, Marco Polo visited a Persian territory near present-day Baku, Azerbaijan.  "Near the Georgian border,” he observed, “there is a spring from which gushes a stream of oil in such abundance that a hundred ships may load there at once. This oil is not good to eat; but it is good for burning and as a salve for men and camels affected with itch or scab."

Polo had unknowingly encountered one of the oil wells that feeds Azerbaijan’s wealth to this day, and people were already using it for skin ailments.

In North America, indigenous tribes such as the Seneca of Pennsylvania skimmed a gelatinous substance off the surface of oil seeps found throughout their territories, using it as a salve and a mosquito repellent. Indigenous tribes used the same substance to prevent wind-burn. 

“Rod Wax” and the Birth of  VaselineⓇ

The  petroleum jelly we know today owes itself to a detour made by a young chemist in 1859. Twenty-two-year-old Robert Chesebrough had been investigating ways to extract kerosene from whale oil. However, the nation’s first successful oil drilling operation drew his attention to Titusville, Pennsylvania, where the crude oil the Seneca had once skimmed for salve was being hauled up by the barrel. .  

A heavy substance called “rod wax” caught Chesebrough’s attention. The dark, waxy substance  tended to accumulate thickly on drilling equipment, slowing operations and in some cases damaging the drills. 

The hard-working laborers, though, swore by rod wax’s medicinal use. They unabashedly scooped the greenish-black goo from the drills and applied it directly to their wounds as they worked. 

Chesebrough noticed that wounds treated this way seemed to heal faster with less scabbing. Intrigued, he gathered samples of the “rod wax” and took them back to his laboratory in Brooklyn, where he would spend the next 11 years studying the substance.

He purified the rod wax by filtering it through bauxite until he had a smooth, translucent “jelly,"  which he tested by applying to his own self-inflicted wounds. Satisfied with his results, he enthusiastically pitched his “Wonder Jelly” to pharmacists.

Pharmacists did not embrace Wonder Jelly the way Chesebrough had imagined. Undeterred, he continued to make his pitch, liberally handing out free samples to customers and demonstrating its effects on his own skin. He soon attracted a broad and enthusiastic following. 

By 1874, Wonder Jelly had become so profitable that Chesebrough was selling a jar a minute. He scrapped the name “Wonder Jelly” and registered his product as VaselineⓇ (from the German wasser, or water, and the Greek olion, or oil). 

In 1883, Chesebrough was knighted by Queen Victoria, a devoted customer. VaselineⓇ accompanied Commander Robert Peary on his first Arctic expedition in 1886. 

Its popularity continued to grow, and it was used extensively by medics and doctors during both World Wars. Today, petroleum jelly can be found in countless products for wound care, cosmetics, and skincare. 

Benefits for Eczema-Prone Skin

Several properties make petrolatum useful for the treatment and management of eczema: 

  • It’s an occlusive: Petroleum jelly is water-resistant, and it prevents moisture from evaporating too rapidly from the skin. It also prevents external moisture from infiltrating damaged skin barriers

  • It’s hypoallergenic: Allergic reactions to petroleum jelly are rare, and pure petroleum jelly has no fragrance or dyes.

  • It has anti-inflammatory properties: in mouse studies, topical application of petroleum jelly resulted in lower blood levels of pro-inflammatory molecules.

  • It reduces friction: Petroleum jelly is neither highly viscous, which would make it difficult to apply, nor overly watery, which would allow it to wear off of the skin quickly. It spreads over the skin smoothly, making it gentler on sensitive skin than products that have to aggressively be rubbed in. A single application lasts longer than more watery products. This makes it ideal for reducing friction in areas like the inner thighs or underarms.

  • It’s bacteria-resistant: Petroleum jelly isn’t an antibacterial per se; it doesn’t kill bacteria or other microbes. However, petroleum jelly does not contain enough moisture or nutrients to foster the growth and reproduction of most bacteria.

A Defense for A Damaged Skin Barrier

When your skin barrier works properly, it protects the underlying skin from harsh environmental conditions and irritants. It also prevents moisture from evaporating too quickly from the skin cells beneath (this is called transepidermal water loss, or TEWL, and it is a major problem for people with eczema). 

People with eczema have skin barrier deficiencies that leave the skin more vulnerable to irritants in the environment. These irritants then stimulate an immune system response that results in inflammation–the redness, rash, and itchiness of an eczema flare. 

Poor skin barrier function also increases the rate of TEWL. This loss of hydration further weakens the skin barrier, and inflammation becomes harder to control.

Petroleum Jelly to the Rescue

Petroleum jelly adds some of the water-resistant properties that damaged skin barriers lack. It prevents skin from drying out as rapidly and protects sensitive skin from harsh wind and dry air. Studies suggest that it may actively reduce redness and swelling when applied to active eczema lesions.

Because petroleum jelly is inhospitable to bacteria, it slows the growth of microbes such as Staphylococcus Aureus, or staph A, a bacterium that may contribute to and complicate eczema flares. 

Petroleum jelly’s friction-reducing properties enable it to go on smoothly with minimal tugging at the skin. It also protects against chafing and intertriginous dermatitis, or inflammation caused by skin-on-skin friction in areas like the underarms. 

Are you ready to see what petroleum jelly can do for you? 

How To Incorporate Petroleum Jelly Into Your Self-Care

    • Apply it directly.  Apply it to clean, moisturized skin before you plan on going out into cold, dry conditions. You can safely put petroleum jelly on eczema lesions. Just make sure your skin is clean and apply any topical treatments before applying the petroleum jelly. It’s safe enough to use on infants, too.

    • Pair it with moisturizer.  “Slugging” uses petroleum jelly’s superior occlusive properties to provide intense moisturization to dry skin. Slugging is simple: wash your skin, apply your serums and moisturizers, and top it all off with a layer of petroleum jelly.

  • Use moisturizers containing petrolatum. Effective moisturizers (such as HarlanMD’s Perfect RepairⓉ Moisturizing Cream) and body lotions often use petrolatum along with emollients and humectants for a three-pronged defense against dry skin–softening and hydrating the skin while preventing TEWL. For best results, apply moisturizers and lotions while the skin is still damp from a bath or cleansing.

  • Use eczema treatments containing petrolatum. Petrolatum is used in a number of different eczema products, from prescription creams to over-the-counter ointments. SmartLotionⓇ, for example, uses sulfur and petrolatum to enhance the efficacy of a low-potency corticosteroid (.75% Hydrocortisone). This enables it to act quickly upon inflammation with no risk of skin atrophy or topical steroid withdrawal. 

  • Is Petroleum Jelly Safe? 

    A quick search on “Petrolatum safety” will lead you to blogs proclaiming that petroleum jelly is full of carcinogens and has been banned by the European Union (EU). These claims don’t tell the entire story, though. 

    There is actually no ban on petrolatum in the EU. Companies that use it must document every stage of the petrolatum refinement process to ensure that they contain no polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which are carcinogenic. Petroleum jelly is still widely used throughout Europe and is considered safe as long as it is properly filtered. 

    While petroleum jelly is a product of crude oil, it is not  “derived from gasoline,” nor is it similar to motor oil. Petroleum jelly for personal use is heavily filtered and is not chemically identical to either gasoline or motor oil. It is not highly flammable at temperatures under 400 degrees Fahrenheit, it does not off-gas toxic fumes, and refined petrolatum does not contain PAHs.

    Safety Guidelines/Best Practices

    Petrolatum is remarkably safe when used properly. Here are some tips for using petroleum jelly: 

      • Make sure it’s from a trustworthy source. When purchasing online, make sure that it comes from a country where its filtration is regulated. Industrial-grade petrolatum is not as pure as drugstore-variety petroleum jelly. Petroleum jelly with a dark brown, reddish, or greenish-black tint should be avoided.

      • Don’t use around open flames, near heat sources, or oxygen tanks (this last point is somewhat debated). Petroleum jelly isn’t highly flammable, but if exposed to sparks or other sources of heat, it could possibly give off flammable fumes.

  • Don’t use in nostrils. People sometimes apply a thin layer of petroleum jelly to the inside of the nostrils in dry conditions or when oxygen cannulas are used. While  miniscule, there is a risk of inhalation, which could lead to aspiration pneumonia.

  • Don’t treat it as a moisturizer on its own. This tip is less about safety and more about effectiveness. Petroleum jelly is an occlusive, and it helps prevent TEWL. But by itself, it will not moisturize the skin. Use it with products containing humectants and emollients. 

  • Only use on clean, acne-free skin. While petroleum jelly is non comedogenic (does not clog pores), using it on skin that hasn’t been cleansed can allow dirt, sebum, and dead skin cells to build up–which can lead to clogged pores.  
  • Summary

    Petroleum jelly is found in a variety of skincare products and topical medications, including moisturizers and eczema creams (such as Smart LotionⓇ). Most people, including newborns, can use it safely. When combined with serums and moisturizers, petroleum jelly locks in moisture and prevents chafing and irritation. It is an inexpensive and effective way to protect your skin and promote healing during eczema flares. 




      Cee Van

      Medical Writer







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