What is Petrolatum?
Petrolatum, also known as petroleum jelly, is a semi-solid mixture of hydrocarbons that is commonly used in skincare products as an occlusive agent, skin protectant, and skin softener. It creates a protective barrier on the skin's surface that helps to prevent moisture loss and protect the skin from external irritants. The hydrophobic film slows the evaporation of water from the skin (transepidermal water loss) keeping the skin soft, smooth, and healthy. This barrier is semi-permeable or “breathable” to the skin which allows for reduction in TEWL while speeding up barrier recovery. Petrolatum has been recognized as a skin protectant by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is often used in the treatment of dry, chapped, or irritated skin that can be caused by wind, cold climates, and a compromised skin barrier. Its emollient properties make it an effective moisturizer, and it is generally considered safe for use in skincare products.
What Does Petrolatum Do to the Skin?
Petrolatum keeps the skin soft, supple, and elastic. It reduces skin flaking and dryness associated with external stress such as wind and cold weather. As a cosmetic product it improves skin texture and can even reduce the appearance of lines and wrinkles caused by dehydration.
As a skin protectant, it prevents and treats minor skin irritations such as scraps, cuts, and burns. It can keep the skin protected from pollutants and irritating ingredients. After surgeries or excisions, dermatologists often recommend application to keep the skin hydrated minimizing scarring, redness, infection, and inflammation. It is important not to use petroleum on open wounds or deep puncture wounds.
Benefits of Petrolatum:
Petrolatum not only acts as a barrier or film on the skin but has biological effects, making it more than just an “inert” moisturizer. It can address a number of skin concerns:
Dehydration: One of the key benefits of petrolatum is its ability to treat and prevent dry, rough, or chapped skin. By forming a barrier on the skin's surface, petrolatum helps to lock in moisture and prevent water loss, which can cause the skin to become dry and cracked.
Pollution-induced dullness or irritation: Petrolatum is also effective in protecting the skin from environmental stressors such as pollution. This is because the barrier it forms helps to shield the skin from these harmful elements, which can cause damage and irritation.
Minor skin irritations: As a skin protectant, petrolatum has been shown to be effective in treating minor skin irritations such as cuts, scrapes, and burns. Its protective barrier helps to soothe the skin, reducing redness and inflammation.
Atopica Dermatitis: Petrolatum can reduce minor irritation and redness while promoting skin recovery.
How Does Petrolatum Work?
Petrolatum forms a semipermeable barrier on the skin allowing oxygen to permeable while slowing the evaporation of water from the skin. Skin feels soft and supple after use. This is ideal for barrier recovery. Aside from this physical benefit, petrolatum has been shown to have physiological benefits as well. One study showed that petrolatum upregulates native antimicrobial peptides, limiting infection. This explains its use after surgeries to limit skin infections in addition to keeping the site moisturized to minimize scabbing followed by scarring. In the study, petrolatum also induced expression of key barrier differentiation markers which then increased stratum corneum thickness. As a skin protectant it is effective in treating minor skin irritations such as cuts, scrapes, and burns and promotes healing.
Concentration Levels & Recommended Usage for Petrolatum:
Petrolatum acts as an occlusive ingredient that prevents water loss from the skin and can range in concentration from 1% to 100%. The use level in a skincare product will depend on the product’s intended use and the desired sensorial characteristics. For example ointments and balms tend to contain higher levels of petrolatum and are encouraged to be the last skincare product used in a routine to “seal in” the moisture. Lower levels of petrolatum can be used to enhance skin moisturization and can be found in serums and lotions. The FDA recognizes petrolatum as a skin protectant, making it an OTC (over-the-counter) active, when used at a concentration of 30% or higher. It helps protect and relieve chapped skin and lips, prevents dehydration and drying, and softens the skin. Generally, skincare products that are designed to treat dry, chapped, or irritated skin will contain higher concentrations of petrolatum, such as ointments and balms. When combined with emollients like dimethicone, its heavy and greasy texture can be minimized, resulting in a more pleasant user experience. USP grade petrolatum, needed for OTC drug products, ensures compliance with FDA standards for processing and purity. This purification process refines the petrolatum, optimizing melting point and color and limiting contaminants.
In general, it is safe to use skincare products that contain petrolatum as directed by the product label or as recommended by a dermatologist. However, as with any skincare ingredient, it is always important to patch test a new product before using it all over the face or body to check for any adverse reactions.
Is it Okay to Use Petrolatum Daily?
Petrolatum is generally considered to be safe for use in skincare products, including daily use. In fact, petrolatum is commonly used in a wide range of skincare products, from lip balms to moisturizers, and is considered to be a highly effective ingredient for hydrating and protecting the skin.
While petrolatum is considered non-comedogenic, meaning that it does not clog pores, those with acne prone skin tend to use it sparingly because of the greasy and heavy sensorial feel. Dermatologists may recommend a different skin protectant for those with acne-prone skin such as dimethicone or glycerin which are not as occlusive.
However, as with any skincare ingredient, there is always a risk of skin irritation or allergic reaction, especially for individuals with sensitive skin. Therefore, it is important to patch test a new skincare product that contains petrolatum before using it all over the face or body to check for any adverse reactions.
Who Should Use Petrolatum?
Petrolatum is a versatile skincare ingredient that can benefit different skin types and concerns. In general, petrolatum is especially useful for people with dry skin, sensitive skin, or irritated skin, as it can help to soothe and moisturize the skin, while also protecting it from external irritants. It is also a popular ingredient in skincare products for people with conditions like eczema, dermatitis, and psoriasis. Many individuals use it for “slugging,” a Korean beauty term for applying it all over the face as a last step before bed to help seal in actives and hydrate the skin overnight.
However, even people with oily or acne-prone skin can benefit from using skincare products that contain petrolatum, as it can help to balance the skin's moisture levels and prevent excessive oil production. Those with more oily skin can use it sparingly and still see results.
Who Should Not Use Petrolatum?
Overall, petrolatum can be a valuable ingredient in skincare products due to its ability to hydrate and protect the skin. Individuals with a history of sensitivity or allergic reactions to petrolatum or other petroleum-based products should avoid using skincare products that contain petrolatum. Additionally, those with oily or acne-prone skin may find that excessive use of petrolatum-based products can exacerbate their skin concerns. If you observe breakouts or congestion after use, reduce frequency of application or discontinue. It is always important to consider your individual skin type and concerns when selecting skincare products, and to consult with a dermatologist if you have any questions or concerns.
It is also important to note that not all petrolatum-based products are created equal, so look for USP grade petrolatum that has been purified for use in drug products.
What Skincare Ingredients Pair Well with Petrolatum?
Petrolatum can be found in a wide range of skincare products and compliments almost every ingredient. When included in moisturizers, lip balms, and other products designed to provide hydration and protect the skin from external irritants it can be combined with ceramides, shea butter, and botanical oils to further support the skin’s moisture barrier. Pairing it with other occlusive ingredients help to seal in moisture and prevent water loss from the skin.
Petrolatum is also often included in ointments and balms like like Prequel's Skin Utility Multi-Purpose Skin Protectant Ointment that are designed to soothe and protect dry, irritated, or cracked skin. These types of products often contain other ingredients such as aloe vera or chamomile extract, which can help to calm and soothe the skin.
Petrolatum pairs very well with humectants such as glycerin that work to draw moisture from the air to the skin. The combination of occlusive and humectant ingredients provides a twofold approach to improving dehydrated skin.
Are There Any Ingredients that Should Not Be Used with Petrolatum
Since petrolatum is an occlusive ingredient, when applied as the last step it can increase the penetration and therefore the irritation potential of ingredients such as alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, and retinoids. When applied as a first step it can interfere with the absorption of other skincare ingredients. Apply more “active” products first followed by petroleum based products but reduce the frequency of application of the petroleum based product if irritation occurs.
DISCLAIMER: All skin care articles are intended to help educate on specific ingredients and skin care topics. Our articles are written to be informative and informational. Any reference to a specific patient experience is not a medical suggestion for treatment. Please note that any Prequel products with referenced ingredients are formulated for Cosmetic Use Only and NOT intended as replacements for physician advice and/or pharmaceutical product recommendations.