Many websites promote the idea that petroleum jelly is dangerous. It is no secret that petroleum jelly, also called petrolatum (trade name Vaseline), is a derivative of petroleum. Oil drillers in Pennsylvania discovered it around 1860, and a chemist named Robert Chesebrough began promoting it for its healing properties. The business he founded eventually became Chesebrough Ponds, the cosmetic and home-products company.
The truth about petrolatum
While unrefined petrolatum from an oil well does indeed contain impurities that might be carcinogenic, refined white petrolatum is free of these chemicals. Unrefined forms of petrolatum have industrial uses, but the white kind has been processed for use in drugs and cosmetics. The FDA, which regulates petrolatum as a drug and cosmetic ingredient, says there is no cause for concern about refined petrolatum. It is not true, as is sometimes claimed, that petrolatum has been banned in the European Union or Canada. Health Canada (the equivalent of the FDA) has studied the potential impacts of all sorts of petroleum products and has concluded there is no evidence that refined petrolatum in cosmetics is unsafe.
Petrolatum helps keep skin moist by blocking the loss of water; thus it is an ingredient in a wide range of moisturizer creams and lotions. Reports of contact dermatitis are rare. It is used by doctors for surgical wounds, and research has shown it to be a better and less irritating ointment for small wounds than bacitracin (antibiotic) ointment.
There are some instances when you shouldn’t use petrolatum. Don’t put it on a fresh burn; like butter (a highly touted “remedy”), it holds the heat in. Don’t use it as a lubricant for latex condoms, because it may weaken them and lead to a tear; use water-based lubricants instead.
And finally, be cautious about using it inside the nose because it can be inhaled (after prolonged or excessive use) and lead to lung damage and a rare ailment called lipoid pneumonia. It’s okay to use a little petrolatum occasionally to relieve nasal dryness and thus help prevent nosebleeds—just don’t put it far up in the nostril. If you need something you can use daily, drugstores sell water-based nasal gels.
Also see Is Talcum Powder Safe?