Why Petroleum Jelly Is a Great Moisturizer

petroleum jelly photo
Dale Berman/Corbis

If you're looking for an excellent, cheap moisturizer, look no further than your medicine cabinet for a tub of petroleum jelly, known by its brand name Vaseline.

Moisturizers are often categorized into three classes: occlusive, humectant, and reparative, according to dermatologist Hanan Taha, MD.


Occlusive moisturizers include petrolatum aka "petroleum jelly," mineral oil, triglycerides, sunflower oil, soybean oil, jojoba oil, evening primrose oil and olive oil. Though occlusive moisturizers can ease dry skin, they're also somewhat greasy and not something you'd wear to work or out with friends, explains Dr. Taha. Instead, apply them at night so they have time to seep into your skin or during the wintertime when the air is especially dry [source: FutureDerm.com]

Humectants, like glycerin and lactic acid, draw water from lower levels of the skin to the surface, giving you a soft and supple complexion. They are also lighter and cosmetically more appealing, so they are ideal for summer and during the daytime. [source: FutureDerm.com] Reparative moisturizers have both occlusive and humectant properties, but they also work by repairing the damaged skin barrier and adding back in any lost nutrients. [source: FutureDerm.com]

However, if you have dry skin, it's best to go with Vaseline. "Petroleum jelly is a fantastic moisturizer because it's a great occlusive," says Dr. Joshua Fox, Medical Director of Advanced Dermatology PC. It's like putting plastic around the skin, he says, locking moisture in.


Safe and Soothing

Petroleum jelly's initial purpose was as a medicinal salve, meant to speed up the healing process, when it was patented in 1872. Since then, the FDA has approved of it as an effective over-the-counter skin protectant, and it's been used as makeup remover, lubricant and homemade lip balm. Because it stops water from being evaporated and helps plump up the top layer of skin, it's beloved by dermatologists and beauty fiends alike. And it's a steal – a typical tub is around $5. [source: HowStuffWorks.com]

Another reason Dr. Fox recommends it as a moisturizer is that it has a very low rate of allergic reactions. "After surgery in my dermatology office, we've stopped using Neosporin and now use petroleum jelly and our patients have never had an allergic reaction to it."


But, as Dr. Taha noted earlier, there's a difference between a product being a great moisturizer and being a practical moisturizer. She finds that many Caucasian women will not use petroleum jelly as a moisturizer because it's so greasy. The greasiness is the occlusive aspect and one of petroleum jelly's advantages.

"If you deal with ethnicity a bit, culturally, certain ethnicities will use it more often than others to help with dry skin," says Dr. Fox. "It does work well so I do encourage it, but if someone is resistant, it's better for them to use another moisturizer than nothing at all."

But even if you don't use it in your day-to-day skin-care routine, try it out when you're skin has been up against the elements. If you have windburn from a day on the chilly ski slopes, a bike ride, or a windy beach day, apply petroleum jelly liberally to your face or wherever you see dry skin. The jelly helps ease discomfort. [source: ReadersDigest.com]

Not only can Vaseline add moisture to the skin on your face, but it can also put an end to chapped lips, dry, cracked hands and dryness on any other body part that's the victim of cool air [source: ReadersDigest.com]

For those who are eco-conscious and skin care-conscious, the one downside of petroleum jelly is that's not a green beauty product. A byproduct of petroleum (yep, the fossil fuel), it's approved by the FDA, but some of the refining methods use toxic compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). They are removed during the refining process, but the European Union requires all products containing petroleum jelly to have a known refining history. That being said, it's generally safe to use on skin.

Learn more about using petroleum jelly as a moisturizer here.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Joshua Fox, Personal correspondence, August 8, 2013


  • Dr. Hanan Taha, M.D. "What are the Differences between Occlusive, Humectant, and Reparative Moisturizers? FutureDerm.com

  • From 'Extraordinary Uses for Ordinary Things.' "26 Extraordinary Uses for Petroleum Jelly"


  • Conger, Cristen. "Can petroleum jelly be used as a moisturizer?"