AskDefine | Define petrolatum

Dictionary Definition

petrolatum n : a semi-solid mixture of hydrocarbons obtained from petroleum; used in medicinal ointments and for lubrication [syn: petroleum jelly, mineral jelly]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. a smooth, semisolid mixture of mineral oil and waxes; used as a lubricant and in polishes, cosmetics and ointments


Extensive Definition

For Vaseline (brand) and other uses, see Vaseline (disambiguation).
Petroleum jelly, petrolatum or soft paraffin is a semi-solid mixture of hydrocarbons (with carbon numbers mainly higher than 25), originally promoted as a topical ointment for its healing properties. Its folkloric medicinal value as a "cure-all" has since been limited by better scientific understanding of appropriate and inappropriate uses (see Uses below). However, it is recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an approved over-the-counter (OTC) skin protectant and remains widely used in cosmetic skin care.
The raw material for petroleum jelly was discovered in 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania, United States, on some of the country's first oil rigs. Workers disliked the paraffin-like material forming on rigs because it caused them to malfunction, but they used it on cuts and burns because it hastened healing.
Robert Chesebrough, a young chemist whose previous work of distilling fuel from the oil of sperm whales had been rendered obsolete by petroleum, went to Titusville to see what new materials had commercial potential. Chesebrough took the unrefined black "rod wax", as the drillers called it, back to his laboratory to refine it and explore potential uses. Chesebrough discovered that by distilling the lighter, thinner oil products from the rod wax, he could create a light-colored gel. Chesebrough patented the process of making petroleum jelly () in 1872. The process involved vacuum distillation of the crude material followed by filtration of the still residue through bone char.
Chesebrough traveled around New York demonstrating the product to encourage sales by burning his skin with acid or an open flame, then spreading the ointment on his injuries and showing his past injuries healed, he claimed, by his miracle product.
He opened his first factory in 1870 in Brooklyn, United States. The brand name "Vaseline" has been anecdotally claimed to be from the German word for water, wasser (pronounced vahser), and the Greek word for oil, elaion, but this is unconfirmed.

Physical properties

Petrolatum is a flammable, semi-solid mixture of hydrocarbons, having a melting-point usually ranging from a little below to a few degrees above 100°F (37°C). It is colorless, or of a pale yellow color (when not highly distilled), translucent, and devoid of taste and smell when pure. It does not oxidize on exposure to the air, and is not readily acted on by chemical reagents. It is insoluble in water. It is soluble in chloroform, benzene, carbon disulfide and oil of turpentine.
There is a common misconception (resulting from the similar feel they produce when applied to human skin) that petroleum jelly and glycerol (glycerine) are physically similar. While petroleum is a non-polar hydrocarbon hydrophobic (water-repelling) and insoluble in water, glycerol (not a hydrocarbon but an alcohol) is the opposite: it is so strongly hydrophilic (water-attracting) that by continuous absorption of moisture from the air, it produces the feeling of wetness on the skin, similar to the greasiness produced by petroleum jelly. The feeling is similar, but petroleum jelly repels water, and glycerine attracts it.
Producers of microcrystalline wax and related materials often produce petrolatums. Some testing standards used by these companies are as follows:
  • Drop Melt Point (ASTM D-127)
  • Cone Penetration (ASTM D-937)
  • Saybolt Color (ASTM D-6045)
  • Lovibond Color
Depending on the specific industry the petrolatum is used for, the petrolatum may be USP (United States Pharmacopeia) grade. This pertains to the processing and handling of the petrolatum so it is suitable for cosmetic and personal care applications.


Chesebrough originally promoted Vaseline primarily as an ointment for scrapes, burns, and cuts, but physicians have shown that Vaseline has no medicinal effect or any effect on the blistering process, nor is it absorbed by the skin. Vaseline’s effectiveness in accelerating wound healing stems from its sealing effect on cuts and burns, which inhibits germs from getting into the wound and keeps the injured area supple by preventing the skin's moisture from evaporating.
Vaseline brand First Aid Petroleum Jelly, or carbolated petroleum jelly, containing phenol to give the jelly additional anti-bacterial effect, has been discontinued.
However, after becoming a medicine chest staple, consumers began to use Vaseline for myriad ailments and cosmetic uses, including chapped hands and lips, toenail fungus, nosebleeds, diaper rash, chest colds, and even to remove makeup or stains from furniture. Uses for pets include stopping fungi from developing on aquatic turtles' shells and keeping cats from making messes when they cough up furballs. In the first part of the twentieth century, petrolatum, either pure or as an ingredient, was also popular as a hair pomade. When used in a 50/50 mixture with pure beeswax, it makes an effective moustache wax.
During World War II, a variety of petroleum jelly called dark red veterinary petroleum jelly was often included in life raft survival kits. Acting as a sunscreen, it provides almost perfect protection against ultraviolet rays.
Most petroleum jelly today is consumed as an ingredient in skin lotions and cosmetics. Although petrolatum is less expensive than glycerol, the most common active lubricating ingredient in skin lotion, it is not used in expensive lotions, because it is not absorbed into the skin, resulting in a greasy feel.
Petroleum jelly was formerly used as a way to pitch a spitball in baseball. Although the pitch was banned in 1920, pitchers sometimes throw "the spitter" surreptitiously.
Petroleum jelly is used to moisten plasticine, as part of a mix of hydrocarbons including greater (paraffin wax) and lesser (mineral oil) molecular weights.
Petroleum jelly is commonly used as a personal lubricant. (Not recommended due to its dissolving effect on condoms. See below.)
It can also be used to lubricate a Rubik's Cube (if silicone spray is not available), which allows it to turn with greater ease.
It can also be used to lubricate the anus if the patient is suffering from conditions like hemorrhoids or anal fissures. The purpose of this is to allow the stool to pass through the rectum easier and more freely in an effort to minimize any further damage to the tissue.

Dangerous uses to avoid

As the substance became more common in households, it began to be used for a number of medical purposes, some of which medical science has shown to be dangerous or damaging.
  • Burns
It should not be used on fresh burns of any kind, including sunburn. Petrolatum traps heat inside, worsening burns. After heat has dissipated, however, it can serve as a dressing for minor burns to soothe later pain.
  • Nasal congestion or dryness
If particles of petrolatum are inhaled from the nose, they may deposit in the lungs and lead to a condition called lipoid pneumonia, although this is usually caused by excessive use, rather than daily use.
  • Sex with latex condoms
Since petroleum jelly is oil-based, it interferes with the structure of latex. Using petroleum jelly with latex condoms weakens the material increasing the chance of rupture, and thereby the chance of conceiving or spreading sexually transmitted infections.

Petroleum jelly in popular culture

  • Ice Cube's infamous song "No Vaseline" is a diss towards his former group N.W.A. (and a vicious pun on anal rape).
  • Tyra Banks expressed her ardent enthusiasm for the health and beauty benefits of Vaseline on her talk show.
  • The lyrics of the song "She Don't Use Jelly" by The Flaming Lips speak of a girl who slathers Vaseline on her toast.
  • Elastica included a song called "Vaseline" on their debut album.
  • The Stone Temple Pilots have a song called "Vasoline" (sic) on their second album Purple.
  • The Highwaymen (country supergroup) mentions Petroleum jelly in the song "The twentieth century is almost over": "Did anybody see them linoleum floors, petroleum jelly, and two world wars?"
  • Talking Heads released a compilation album of their work from 1976-1992 titled, "Sand in the Vaseline."
  • On WWE Raw, Stacy Keibler found Andrew Martin's duffel bag that contains a small box of tissues, a large Vaseline bottle, and a Playboy magazine that featured Torrie Wilson.
  • The Dresden Dolls rhapsodize Vaseline in their song "Bad Habit:" "I've tried bandages and sinking, I've tried gloves and even thinking, I've tried Vaseline, I've tried everything."
  • Snake River Conspiracy released an EP titled "Coke and vaseline."
  • Jake Thackray's song "Leopold Allcox" contains the words "You are the grit in my life's Vaseline."
  • In the animated TV show The Simpsons, the character Milhouse Van Houten is said to enjoy the unusual delicacy of Vaseline on toast (which Co-Executive producer Josh Weinstein stated was based on someone he knew who did the same thing); Homer Simpson has also been depicted as eating an entire tub of petroleum jelly. In the episode Lisa the Beauty Queen, many of the contestants in the beauty pageant use Vaseline to achieve a "frictionless smile" allowing the lips to move freely back from the teeth. In another episode, Don't Fear the Roofer, Homer ate a rubber mouth plug covered with vaseline, commenting that it tastes good. Conversely, in the 1999 mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous, several pageant contestants put Vaseline on their teeth in order to make them appear shiny.
  • Dissidents by Thomas Dolby describes political scribblings as "My writing is an iron fist, in a glove full of vaseline."
  • The song "Gave Up" by Nine Inch Nails contains the words "Covered with hope and Vaseline, still cannot fix this broken machine".
  • The Smashing Pumpkins mention Vaseline in the song "Fuck You (An Ode to No One)" in the lyric "With vaseline afterbirths and neon coughs"
  • The song "These Filthy Hands" by Mushroomhead contains a lyric in which J. Mann abruptly shouts out "Petroleum Jelly."
  • The song "Bobby Brown Goes Down" by Frank Zappa contains the lines "Oh God, I am the American dream, but now I smell like Vaseline."
  • The book Of Mice and Men has a character, Curly, keeping one of his hands in a glove full of vaseline, reportedly for his wife, to keep his hand soft for her.
  • In Tyler Perry's book, Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings, he dedicates a whole chapter to various uses of Vaseline.
  • Kevin Eubanks is a strong proponent of petroleum jelly, crediting the shine on his guitars to it.
  • Some of artist Matthew Barney's most well-known installations and performance art pieces incorporate massive quantities of petroleum jelly.
  • Vaseline is mentioned in the song "Pseudo-Suicide'' by Oysterhead.


petrolatum in Arabic: فازيلين
petrolatum in Danish: Vaseline
petrolatum in German: Vaseline
petrolatum in French: Vaseline
petrolatum in Indonesian: Vaseline
petrolatum in Italian: Petrolato
petrolatum in Japanese: ワセリン
petrolatum in Dutch: Vaseline
petrolatum in Norwegian: Vaselin
petrolatum in Polish: Wazelina
petrolatum in Portuguese: Vaselina
petrolatum in Russian: Вазелин
petrolatum in Finnish: Vaseliini
petrolatum in Swedish: Vaselin
petrolatum in Ukrainian: Вазелін
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