What Is Petrolatum? Is It Environmentally Friendly?

Learn what place petrolatum has in the beauty industry.

A small tub of petroleum jelly

Towfiqu Barbhuiya / EyeEm / Getty Images

Petrolatum is a mineral-oil-derived gel commonly referred to as petroleum or petroleum jelly. It is sometimes mixed with waxes and used as a cosmetic moisturizing agent in skin and hair products. This standard "cure-all" product has been touted for its ability to heal dry skin and chapped lips, prevent chafing, and even remove eye makeup.

To those in the know, the word "petroleum" raises a red flag. Petroleum, a term that includes crude oil, is a naturally occurring fossil fuel. The oil extraction and refining processes have been linked to climate change, oil spills, and other environmental concerns.

Learn all about petroleum's environmental impacts.

Products That Contain Petrolatum

Petrolatum is found in petroleum jelly, shampoos, conditioners, anti-aging creams, lotions, mascaras, perfumes, lipsticks, lip balms, foundations, hair relaxers, eye shadows, nail polishes, and sunscreens.

Petroleum Jelly and Crude Oil

Petroleum jelly is one of the thousands of products derived from crude oil refining, including plastics, gasoline, asphalt, and cosmetics.

Crude oil is the liquid form of petroleum (petroleum also includes natural gas and viscous or solid forms, though they are often used interchangeably). In the United States, up to 43% of crude oil produced in 2020 came from the state of Texas, followed by North Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Colorado. Globally, the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Canada are responsible for about 50% of the world's total crude oil production. 

How Is Petroleum Jelly Made?

Petroleum jelly can trace its history back to 1859. Oil workers in Pennsylvania used the unrefined byproduct of drilling that coated the bottom of oil rigs and the oil pump joints (known as "rod wax") to heal wounds and burns on their skin.

The black byproduct or "rod wax" was then triple purified into a lighter, more transparent odorless gel. This new product featured a melting point close to body temperature, which helped it act as a water-repellent protective barrier on the skin. The original petroleum jelly we know as Vaseline was patented in 1865, and it's continued to be used today.

According to the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI), petroleum jelly or products containing petrolatum may be manufactured by blending paraffin oil or wax. However, the product must list all of the ingredients on the package. On the other hand, if the product is manufactured the old-fashioned way—by refinding the crude oil or the crude oil derivatives—the official INCI name should be "petrolatum."

Impact of Oil Extraction

An oil pumpjack with a leaky wellhead

Gary Kavanagh / Getty Images

The environmental impacts of oil extraction are well known. Hydraulic fracturing requires a large amount of water and uses potentially hazardous chemicals that can affect aquatic habitats. Meanwhile, oil spills can result from accidents at oil wells and contaminate soil and water. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill sent 134 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, killing large amounts of wildlife and damaging ecosystems that struggled to recover for the years that followed. 

The components that are removed from the oil byproduct during the filtering process of petroleum jelly are known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs have been shown to have adverse effects on wildlife like fish, marine vertebrates, and organisms that live on the seafloor. All fully refined, white petroleum jelly products are supposed to have these components removed, but some non-regulated products and imitators may have different grades of purity.

Impact of Oil Refinement

Pumpjack (oil derrick) and refinery plant in West Texas

dszc / Getty Images

Crude oil and petroleum are known fossil fuels because they are made up of hydrocarbons that initially formed from the remains of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago. These materials sit in either liquid or gas form in underground pools and reservoirs, within sedimentary rocks, or near the earth's surface.

In addition, the refining process that occurs after the oil is removed from the ground contributes substantially to carbon buildup in our atmosphere. The petroleum oil refining industry represents the third-largest stationary emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world, accounting for 6% of all industrial greenhouse gas emissions (of that 6%, about 98% is carbon dioxide). In 2018, CO2 emissions from oil refineries totaled 1.3 Gigatons, but studies show that if they continue to operate as usual, they will cumulatively emit 16.5 Gigatons during 2020–2030.

Given their connection to massive C02 emissions and environmental damage, petroleum products are not sustainable no matter how you look at it. Fortunately, natural alternatives in the cosmetic industry are available.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Is petroleum jelly sustainable?

    Petroleum jelly is a byproduct of the petroleum and crude oil industry, which has been linked to a wide variety of sustainability impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions, and is largely considered to be a nonrenewable resource.

  • Is petroleum jelly tested on animals?

    Some cosmetic companies that produce petroleum jelly have taken pledges not to test on animals with programs like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Leaping Bunny, Cruelty-Free International, and Beauty Without Bunnies. Look for an official label on your product that designates cruelty-free certification.

  • Is petroleum FDA aprroved?

    The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes Petrolatum and white petrolatum as approved over-the-counter skin protectants under Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

View Article Sources
  1. Honda M, Suzuki N. Toxicities of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons for Aquatic Animals. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2020; 17(4):1363. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17041363

  2. Cell Press. "We can expect more emissions from oil refineries in the near-term future, analysis finds." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 August 2021. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/08/210820111125.htm>.