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What Is Petroleum, and Why Is It in So Many Skincare Products?

Jenn Sinrich

Most of us have heard of petroleum jelly and, at the very least, know that it's the main ingredient in products like Vaseline ($8.27, amazon.com) and Aquaphor ($13.91, amazon.com). But what actually is the semisolid, jelly- and waxy-like substance that we slather onto everything from wounds and burns to chapped and chafed skin. More importantly, what is it really made of? Believe it or not, it's more natural than you'd think. "Petroleum is found in oil beneath the earth's surface and has been used industrially as a source of energy," explains Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. "Refined forms of this oil has been used for decades and skincare because of its skin protecting and exclusive benefits."

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In fact, petroleum jelly was first used for wound healing and burns in the late 1800s and has been a staple in households worldwide ever since. "The raw material for petroleum jelly was actually discovered out of frustration—a thick, emollient forming on the oil rigs would lead to malfunction," explains Rina Allawh, M.D., a dermatologist at Montgomery Dermatology in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. "Workers quickly discovered the benefit of this paraffin-like material when used on cuts and burns and it was later refined by a young chemist, Robert Chesebrough, who created a company in Brooklyn called Vaseline." Fast forward to the modern age and we're still using the ointment daily for various ailments, including dry skin, rashes, nosebleeds, skin dehydration, and more. Ahead, what petroleum actually does—and why it's found in so many products we use today.

Related: Skincare Glossary: Decoding Popular Ingredients

Petroleum helps heal burns.

Doctors recommend petroleum jelly as the go-to for post-operative wound care following any dermatologic procedure—both medical and cosmetic. "Petroleum jelly promotes rapid, uncomplicated healing with avoidance of potential irritation or allergic reactions (which may be seen with the use of topical antibacterial ointments)," says Dr. Allawh. "Maintaining a moist environment with a thick emollient that forms a barrier against water and environmental exposure is crucial in wound healing."

It also relieves dry skin.

We all suffer from dry skin now and then—some of us more than others. Smoothing petroleum jelly over particularly dry or itchy areas typically brings relief. "Modifying bathing habits and applying a thick emollient, such as Vaseline, is my top recommendation [for moisturizing dry skin]," says Dr. Allawh. She suggests applying petroleum jelly just after showering to help your skin retain as much moisture as possible.

And holds hair in place, too.

Petroleum holds wax well, which is why it is one of the more popular ingredients for facial hair products. "It's found to mix well with beeswax and easily spreads into the mustache and beard," explains Dr. Allawh. "Petroleum jelly may further improve the integrity of the hair and maintain the strength of the hair cuticle."

Petroleum can also make applying and removing makeup easier.

For decades, petroleum jelly has been used as a makeup remover, hair dye protector, chafing healer, and cuticle protector, says Dr. Allawh. "It's also been mixed with various foundations or eyeshadows to turn the powders into a cream for easier application." Another way to integrate petroleum into your beauty routine? Apply petroleum jelly to the places you typically spray perfume before you spritz—doing so will make the fragrance linger a little longer.