Petrolatum (Petroleum Jelly) In Skincare Explained: The Best Moisture-Sealer Of All Times

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Whether you are fond of slugging, prefer ointments over lightweight moisturizers, or are an occlusive addict, chances are you’ve already tried petrolatum. This waxy guy is used in all types of moisturizers, and it’s one of the best ingredients to lock moisture in, hinder water loss, and consolidate the protective barrier, which is why it became a staple in all robust skincare strategies. And now, with the plummeting temperatures, you need petrolatum more than ever to keep your skin moisturized in winter. So what exactly is petrolatum, how does it work, and how to use it for A-class results? If you’ve been pondering these questions, this article will shed some light on all your concerns you may have regarding the benefits of petrolatum for skin.

What is petrolatum?

Petrolatum (or petroleum jelly) is a substance derived from refined petroleum consisting of a mixture of mineral waxes and oils. As for skincare, petrolatum is a very effective occlusive (the most, in fact) that creates a protective film over the skin’s surface to hinder water loss. It also has emollient properties, meaning it can soften and restore the protective barrier. Though it may feel a bit greasy and sticky, petrolatum is non-comedogenic, so it doesn’t clog pores.

Petrolatum benefits for skin

Here’s how petrolatum can benefit your skin:

  • Reduces moisture loss: Petrolatum is an effective occlusive, so it forms a water-repellant barrier over the skin’s surface to prevent moisture from evaporating into the atmosphere. Studies found that at a concentration of 5%, it can reduce transepidermal water loss by nearly 98%.[1] Because of its moisture-sealing abilities, petrolatum is often used to relieve skin dehydration, a condition caused by excessive water loss. It’s also the go-to during winter or in low-humidity environments, where skin moisture tends to evaporate faster.
  • Repairs skin: Due to its emollient properties, petrolatum provides an instant softening effect and works in the long run to recover the skin.[2] Interestingly, researchers found that petrolatum also increases the levels of filaggrin and loricrin, proteins with an essential role in the formation of the epidermal barrier.[3] More exciting still, another study found that petrolatum has the same skin-repairing effects as a cream containing ceramidescholesterol, and fatty acids.[4]
  • Protects: The protective film petrolatum creates over the surface not only hinders water loss but also shields the complexion against environmental aggressors, the reason FDA classifies petrolatum as a skin protectant.[5]
  • Increases product absorption: Petrolatum can increase skin penetration, therefore enhancing the absorption of products applied under the occlusive layer.[6] In other words, what you use before petrolatum will provide enhanced benefits. While this is a good thing if we’re talking about applying a hyaluronic acid serum or humectant moisturizer, trapping retinoids or exfoliants under petrolatum can mess up the skin’s barrier. Hence, it’s best to stick with gentle actives while using occlusives.
  • Antimicrobial: Petrolatum may as well act as a topical antibiotic to help prevent infection post cosmetic procedures (think chemical peels, laser resurfacing). The reason is that petrolatum can boost some peptides that possess antibacterial properties, supporting the skin to fight infection.[3]

Is it safe?

As far as skincare is concerned, petrolatum is a safe, stable, non-irritating, and non-allergenic ingredient. It’s highly refined and purified, so it doesn’t expose the skin to harsh chemicals. Besides, it’s non-comedogenic, so it doesn’t cause breakouts nor aggravate them.

Does petrolatum penentrate the skin?

Yes, while it leaves a long-lasting protective film over the surface after application, petrolatum also penetrates the skin’s outer layer (stratum corneum), where it supports the barrier recovery process. However, it does not pass through the dermis.[7]

Who should use it?

Overall, everyone can use petrolatum, being the perfect candidate for dry, dehydrated, and cracked skin. On the other side, those with oily and acne-prone complexions should be more cautious as petrolatum can be sticky and leave a greasy feeling. 

How to use it

How to use petrolatum mostly depends on the product at hand. You can find petrolatum in different concentrations in all sorts of moisturizers, ointments, and creams, as well as in 100% concentration in Vaseline®. Although it’s safe to use two times a day, in the morning and nighttime routine, we recommend applying your petrolatum product at PM since it may be too heavy and greasy for the day. You should also use occlusives with humectants since the latter pulls water from the environment and the former traps that moisture into the skin.

Read next: The 9 Best Occlusive Moisturizers for Dry, Dehydrated Skin


Sources

Women’s Concepts uses reliable sources, including dermatologists’ insights, clinical trials, and scientific journals, to find accurate information and support all the facts shared in our articles. All statements and claims have clear and legit references. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our sources of information, our process of researching and fact-checking the content, and how our team strives to keep all articles updated, completed, and trustworthy.

References
  1. Purnamawati S, Indrastuti N, Danarti R, Saefudin T. The Role of Moisturizers in Addressing Various Kinds of Dermatitis: A Review. Clin Med Res. 2017 Dec;15(3-4):75-87. doi: 10.3121/cmr.2017.1363. Epub 2017 Dec 11. PMID: 29229630; PMCID: PMC5849435.
  2. Ghadially R, Halkier-Sorensen L, Elias PM. Effects of petrolatum on stratum corneum structure and function. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1992 Mar;26(3 Pt 2):387-96. doi: 10.1016/0190-9622(92)70060-s. PMID: 1564142.
  3. Czarnowicki T, Malajian D, Khattri S, Correa da Rosa J, Dutt R, Finney R, Dhingra N, Xiangyu P, Xu H, Estrada YD, Zheng X, Gilleaudeau P, Sullivan-Whalen M, Suaréz-Fariñas M, Shemer A, Krueger JG, Guttman-Yassky E. Petrolatum: Barrier repair and antimicrobial responses underlying this “inert” moisturizer. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2016 Apr;137(4):1091-1102.e7. doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2015.08.013. Epub 2015 Oct 1. PMID: 26431582.
  4. Lodén M, Bárány E. Skin-identical lipids versus petrolatum in the treatment of tape-stripped and detergent-perturbed human skin. Acta Derm Venereol. 2000 Nov-Dec;80(6):412-5. doi: 10.1080/000155500300012774. PMID: 11243632.
  5. Over-the-Counter (OTC) Related Federal Register Notices, Ingredient References, and other Regulatory Information, U.S. Food and Drug Administration
  6. Hafeez F, Maibach H. Occlusion effect on in vivo percutaneous penetration of chemicals in man and monkey: partition coefficient effects. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2013;26(2):85-91. doi: 10.1159/000346273. Epub 2013 Jan 16. PMID: 23327987.
  7. T. Petry, D. Bury, R. Fautz, M. Hauser, B. Huber, A. Markowetz, S. Mishra, K. Rettinger, W. Schuh, T. Teichert, Review of data on the dermal penetration of mineral oils and waxes used in cosmetic applications, Toxicology Letters, 2017.
Who wrote this?
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu
Ana is a sociologist and feminist with a shared passion for literature, psychology, and skincare, the combo that made her determined to start Women's Concepts. With over five years of experience in dermatological research, she has now become a certified skincare consultant keen to convince others of the importance of a diligent routine. Her close relationships with dermatologists around the globe, along with years of researching, analyzing studies, and hand-testing products on a daily basis, made Ana one of the best persons you can get advice from.
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