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What is Petroleum Jelly?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Petroleum jelly is a mixture of hydrocarbons that is semisolid at room temperature, and it is also odorless, when properly refined. It is used in a variety of industries, although many people associate it with the popular Vaseline® brand personal care product. It may also be marketed as petrolatum or soft paraffin. Many general stores carry this product, and it can also be found at medical supply houses and drugstores.

In 1859, workers on oil rigs noticed that a dense substance was clogging their drills. Allegedly, someone came up with the idea of putting the substance on cuts and burns, and after some chemical refinement, commercial petroleum jelly began to be marketed on a wide scale. Initially, it was viewed as a cure-all, recommended for a wide range of medical conditions, although later analysis and studies suggested that it was not, in fact, a miracle cure. In addition to being used in personal care, the jelly was also marketed for use as a lubricant, and it shows up in some surprising places sometimes.

In the sense of a personal care item, there are some practical uses for petroleum jelly. It does not heal cuts and burns, but it can keep wounds clean by sealing them off, which may be useful in emergencies. It can also trap infectious agents under the skin, however, and it should never be used on fresh burns. As a skin protection tool, this product can be highly useful, especially in cold weather, although it will leave skin feeling greasy.

Some people recommend using it for chapped, runny noses, especially in the winter. Unfortunately, this product should not be used around the nose, as it can cause a condition called lipid pneumonia, a lung infection caused by the inhalation of fats. It may also interfere with the nose's ability to naturally scrub air as a person inhales, which could also contribute to lung infections. It should also not be used as a sexual lubricant in combination with latex barrier protection, as it can degrade the latex.

Petroleum jelly can also make a useful lubricant in some cases, although it can also gum up machinery. Because it protects objects from oxidation, it may be used to coat metals that are vulnerable to oxidation damage. Many printers and etchers, for example, use a thin coat to protect type and plates from oxidation so that they can be stored.

About Mechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon291279 — On Sep 13, 2012

Under normal circumstances, what is the active ingredient: the powder or the petroleum jelly?

By anon282382 — On Jul 29, 2012

Can petroleum jelly be used as a substitute for lanolin in making crayon lipsticks?

By anon269623 — On May 18, 2012

Can petroleum jelly be used even if has a skin allergy?

By anon146948 — On Jan 27, 2011

Can petroleum jelly be used in the mouth daily for sores inside your bottom lip?

By anon140598 — On Jan 08, 2011

do it contain any kind of animal fat?

By anon122483 — On Oct 28, 2010

what will happen if you accidentally use an expired petroleum jelly as a lubricant? -vain17-

By anon86899 — On May 27, 2010

what is the disadvantage when skin is covered with petroleum jelly and exposed to the sun?

By anon86478 — On May 25, 2010

One of my son's teachers said that petroleum jelly had cigarette's addictive additives in it? Is this true?

By anon80973 — On Apr 29, 2010

does petroleum jelly have latex in it?

By anon80154 — On Apr 26, 2010

Is petroluem jelly Vaseline?

By anon65936 — On Feb 16, 2010

Why can't petroleum jelly be used for chapped lips if patient is on oxygen? I understand the whole getting really hot, liquefy, vaporize and then igniting, but to me it would seem that the petroleum jelly would have to exposed to a great amount of heat and for some time.

By anon64916 — On Feb 10, 2010

Is Petroleum jelly is similar to paraffin/iso paraffinic oils or similar to microcrystalline/paraffin wax? what about reactivity towards chemicals,particularly with polyurethanes.(mix of polyols and isocyanates)? --arvin

By anon53914 — On Nov 25, 2009

to dissolve petroleum jelly use vegetable oil.

By anon43747 — On Sep 01, 2009

What is the difference between petroleum and lubricant jelly? Can they both be used for the same purposes?

By anon41744 — On Aug 17, 2009

"What happens when petroleum jelly is heated and is this a polar or non-polar solution?"

Depending upon how hot you get it, it will first liquefy, then vaporize, then ignite.

It will be a non-polar substance.

By anon41742 — On Aug 17, 2009

"Is it true that petroleum causes cancer?"

Many petroleum compounds (and there are thousands of different compounds found in or made from petroleum,) are known to be carcinogenic, so it's a qualified 'yes.'

By anon41558 — On Aug 15, 2009

What happens when petroleum jelly is heated and is this a polar or non-polar solution?

By anon32455 — On May 21, 2009

if you give a cat petroleum jelly to help it stop from throwing up frequently, will that cause a problem? (however, the source that i went to, told me to put it on his paw so he can lick it.)

By wizodd — On Apr 28, 2009

anon19209: Amixture of 50% petroleum jelly and 50% lanolin...

Since both items are similar hydrocarbons, related to oils and greases, either or both work to prevent air and water vapor from reaching the metal.

No air, no free oxygen, no rust!

I suspect the formula was developed because petroleum jelly is very soft, and tends to wipe off of surfaces, whereas lanolin is a bit harder, thus difficult to apply. The mixture should have physical characteristics somewhere in between them.

Used as a protective coating on the skin to protect from chemicals used in welding & soldering, petroleum jelly is somewhat more effective than lanolin, possibly because lanolin will be absorbed through the skin.

By wizodd — On Apr 28, 2009

ginnymaxine: "...petroleum jelly contains gasoline?"

No. Petroleum jelly does not contain any of the lighter hydrocarbon molecules such as gasoline, if it did, it would not be odorless.

By anon30912 — On Apr 26, 2009

Is it true that petroleum causes cancer?

By pudster — On Jan 17, 2009

I recently bought 'Dermeze' ointment recommended by skin specialists..it looks and feels very similar to Petroleum jelly..I was wondering if the ingredients are the same. The ingredients in the Dermeze are Liquid paraffin 50% white soft paraffin 50%. I'm an Aussie. Thank you for your time.

By anon24245 — On Jan 09, 2009

Powder or flour or cornstarch will help remove any greasy substance.

By ginnymaxine — On Dec 28, 2008

A friend told me petroleum jelly contained gasoline? Any answers on this?

By anon19209 — On Oct 07, 2008

Amixture of 50% petroleum jelly and 50% lanolin will protect ferrous metal from moisture problems. (rust) I have used it for 25 years in my machine shop with no problems related to rust. I don't know where I got the recipe, maybe from my dad. Rust never sleeps, but this mix will keep it singing itself to sleep.

By wizodd — On Sep 25, 2008

anon5375: A large dose of (ingested) petroleum jelly may have the following effects: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, intestinal obstruction.

A child tasting petroleum jelly is unlikely to cause any problems. Eating a quantity may have the results above.

By anon16450 — On Aug 06, 2008

Hi lynnlynn, I don't know how long ago you posted this question, but the best way or quickest way to get petroleum out of the hair is to wash it out with Dawn dish detergent using the hot water at the warmest temperature level that your skin can tolerate. You can use your regular shampoo, but Dawn is known to "get grease out of your way".

By lynnlynn — On May 10, 2008

Do you know how to dissolve petroleum jelly? Or what could be used to remove it from hair?

By anon5375 — On Nov 23, 2007

what is the disadvantage when a child tastes the petroleum jelly?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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