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Is Petroleum Jelly an Effective Moisturizer?

Someone scooping a dab of petroleum jelly out of a container.
Towfiqu ahamed barbhuiya/Shutterstock

Most of us associate Vaseline with deep hydration. After all, it leaves your skin feeling silky smooth and protects it from the elements. Yet, that trusty old friend isn’t even a moisturizer. How is this possible?

What Exactly Is Petroleum Jelly?

Petroleum jelly, or petrolatum, is simply a by-product of crude oil refinement. Commonly known by the brand name Vaseline, it was discovered back in the mid-1800s by chemist Robert Chesebrough on a trip to the Pennsylvania oil fields. Upon his arrival, the local oil drillers told him about a jelly-like substance they called “rod wax” they were regularly removing from the bottom of the oil rigs. 

Instead of disposing of it, however, the workers had been using it as a healing cream for cuts and burns. This inspired Chesebrough to take some samples back to his lab in New York for further examination.

After years of experiments and thorough investigation, Chesebrough managed to extract refined petroleum jelly, and thus, begin manufacturing our beloved Vaseline. 

These days, you’ll find petrolatum in a variety of products, including lotions, soaps, and cleansers.

Should You Use Petroleum Jelly as a Moisturizer?

A woman applying Vaseline to her lips with her finger.
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Commonly considered a cure-all for a wide range of skin-related issues, Vaseline is especially praised for its moisture-retaining properties. As a result, many often reach for their jar the minute they feel their skin needs some hydration.

Petrolatum acts as a protective barrier that locks in moisture and prevents damage from cold weather, which can often leave your skin dry and flakey. This is where things get lost in translation.

Because petrolatum repels water, it’s a great sealing agent. However, it’s not a humectant, meaning it doesn’t retain moisture. Therefore, Vaseline doesn’t have any nourishing properties. 

In one study, researchers wanted to determine the different levels of hydration the skin received from lotion, water, glycerol, and petroleum jelly. Water and lotion were found to produce the most hydration, while petroleum jelly was the least effective substance tested.

This explains why applying Vaseline to cracked lips or a flakey nose doesn’t seem to do the trick. No matter how often you use it, your skin just doesn’t improve, and you have to keep going back for more.

Petroleum jelly is a temporary fix that will prevent dry skin from getting worse, but it’s not much help as a treatment. This is why the American Academy of Dermatology advises against using petroleum jelly on acne-prone skin, as it could cause breakouts or further irritation.

How to Use Petroleum Jelly to Moisturize Your Skin

In order to maximize the benefits of Vaseline, you need to know what not to do. First, you should never apply petroleum jelly on unclean skin, especially if you have a minor open wound. The occlusive properties of the substance can seal in any underlying dirt or bacteria, which can prolong or impede the healing process or cause breakouts.

Since Vaseline isn’t a moisturizer, you should use it in conjunction with lotion or nourishing creams to get the desired results. Remember, just because your skin feels soft after you slather on some Vaseline doesn’t mean it’s actually benefitting from it.

The following skincare routine will help you benefit the most from Vaseline:

  1. Cleanse and wash your skin thoroughly.
  2. Apply your moisturizer or lotion of choice to hydrate your skin.
  3. Apply a thin layer of Vaseline to lock in the moisture.

Everyone’s skin is different, so what works for some might not work for you. If your skin doesn’t improve after a few days or new dry spots appear, you might want to try some different products or consult a dermatologist.

Carla Cometto Carla Cometto
Carla has been writing professionally for five years and blogging for many more. She's worked as a journalist, photographer, and translator. She's also an avid traveler who hopes to inspire a sense of curiosity and adventure in others through her writing. Read Full Bio »

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