Petroleum jelly

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For Vaseline (brand) and other uses, see Vaseline (disambiguation).

Petroleum jelly, vaseline, petrolatum or soft paraffin [2] is a semi-solid mixture of hydrocarbons (with carbon numbers mainly higher than 25),[3] originally promoted as a topical ointment for its healing properties. Its folkloric medicinal value as a "cure-all" has since been limited by better scientific understanding of appropriate and inappropriate uses (see Uses below) However, 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. It is commonly referred to as Vaseline as a genericized trademark.


The raw material for petroleum jelly was discovered in 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania, United States where it was stuck to some of the first oil rigs in the U.S. The workers disliked the paraffin like material because it caused the rigs to seize up, but they used it on cuts and burns because it hastened healing.

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. Chesebrough 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 (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, United States. The brand name "Vaseline" has been anecdotally claimed to be from the German word for water, wasser (pronounced vahser), and the Greek word for oil, elaion, but this is unconfirmed.

Physical properties

Petrolatum is a flammable, semi-solid mixture of hydrocarbons, having a melting-point usually ranging from a little below to a few degrees above 100°F (37°C). It is colorless, or of 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 chloroform, benzene, carbon disulfide and oil of turpentine.

There is a common misconception (resulting from the similar feel they produce when applied to human skin) that petroleum jelly and glycerol (glycerine) are physically similar. While petroleum is a non-polar hydrocarbon hydrophobic (water-repelling) and insoluble in water, glycerol (not a hydrocarbon but an alcohol) is the opposite: it is so strongly hydrophilic (water-attracting) that by continuous absorption of moisture from the air, it produces the feeling of wetness on the skin, similar to the greasiness produced by petroleum jelly. The feeling is similar, but petroleum jelly repels water, and glycerine attracts it.

Producers of microcrystalline wax[4] and related materials often produce petrolatums. Some testing standards used by these companies are as follows:

  • Drop Melt Point (ASTM D-127)
  • Cone Penetration (ASTM D-937)
  • Saybolt Color (ASTM D-6045)
  • Lovibond Color

Depending on the specific industry the petrolatum is used for, the petrolatum may be USP (United States Pharmacopeia) grade. This pertains to the processing and handling of the Petrolatum so it is suitable for cosmetic and personal care applications.


Chesebrough originally promoted Vaseline primarily as an ointment for scrapes, burns, and cuts, but physicians have shown that Vaseline has no medicinal effect or any effect on the blistering process, nor is it absorbed by the skin. Vaseline’s effectiveness in accelerating wound healing stems from its sealing effect on cuts and burns, which inhibits germs from getting into the wound and keeps the injured area supple by preventing the skin's moisture from evaporating. "Vaseline First Aid Petroleum Jelly" brand, (which contained phenol to give the jelly additional anti-bacterial effect), has been discontinued.

However, after becoming a medicine chest staple, consumers began to use Vaseline for myriad ailments and cosmetic uses, including: chapped hands or lips, toenail fungus, nosebleeds, diaper rash, chest colds, and even to remove makeup or stains from furniture. It is even used as trout bait. There are uses for it for pets, including stopping fungi from developing on aquatic turtles' shells and to keep cats from making messes when they cough up furballs. In the first part of the twentieth century, petrolatum, 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.

It was also used to shine heaters and slow combustion stove tops.

Most petroleum jelly today is consumed as an ingredient in skin lotions and cosmetics. Although petrolatum is less expensive than glycerol, the most common active lubricating ingredient in skin lotion, it is not used in expensive lotions because it is not absorbed into the skin resulting in a greasy feel.

Petroleum jelly was formerly used as a way to pitch a spitball in baseball. Although the pitch was banned in 1920, pitchers sometimes throw "the spitter" surreptitiously.

Petroleum jelly is used to moisten plasticine, as part of a mix of hydrocarbons including greater (paraffin wax) and lesser (mineral oil) molecular weights.

It can also be used as tinder when coated on cotton balls. The combination can easily be ignited by a fire starter, burning fiercely for several minutes, and the petroleum keeps the cotton from getting wet.

It can be used as a quick method of shining shoes, when spread evenly onto the surface to create a shiny layer. A con to this is that the layer of jelly atracts dirt.

Petroleum jelly is commonly used as a personal lubricant. (Not recommended due to its dissolving effect on condoms. See below.)

Dangerous uses to avoid

As the substance became more common in households, it began to be used for a number of medical purposes, some of which medical science has shown to be dangerous or damaging.

  • Burns
It should not be used on fresh burns of any kind, including sunburn. Petrolatum traps heat inside, worsening burns. After heat has dissipated, however, it can serve as a dressing for minor burns to soothe later pain.[1]
  • Nasal congestion or dryness
It may immobilize the cilia in the nose, impeding its ability to clean incoming airTemplate:Fix/category[citation needed]. As well, if small particles of petrolatum are inhaled from the nose, they may deposit in the lungs and lead to a condition called lipid pneumonia.[2]
  • Sex with latex condoms
Since petroleum is a kind of oil, it interferes with the structure of latex. Using petroleum jelly with latex condoms weakens the material increasing the chance of rupture, and thereby the chance of conceiving or spreading sexually transmitted infections.

Petroleum jelly in popular culture

(while shopping, Beavis picks up a container of petroleum jelly.)

Beavis: I think we need to get some of this.
Butt-head: Oh, yeah…we do.
Beavis: Never have too much of that.
  • Dissidents by Thomas Dolby describes political scribblings as "My writing is an iron fist, in a glove full of vaseline."
  • The song "Gave Up" by Nine Inch Nails contains the words "Covered with hope and Vaseline, still cannot fix this broken machine".
  • The Smashing Pumpkins mention Vaseline in the song "Fuck You (An Ode to No One)" in the lyric "With vaseline afterbirths and neon coughs"
  • The song "These Filthy Hands" by Mushroomhead contains a lyric in which J. Mann abruptly shouts out "Petroleum Jelly."
  • The song "Bobby Brown Goes Down" by Frank Zappa contains the lines "Oh God, I am the American dream, but now I smell like Vaseline."
  • The book Of Mice and Men has a character, Curly, keeping one of his hands in a glove full of vaseline, reportedly for his wife, to keep his hand soft for her.
  • In Tyler Perry's book, Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings, he dedicates a whole chapter to various uses of Vaseline.
  • Kevin Eubanks is a strong proponent of petroleum jelly, crediting the shine on his guitars to it.
  • Some of artist Matthew Barney's most well-known installations and performance art pieces incorporate massive quantities of petroleum jelly.

External links


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