Petroleum Jelly: Not Just for Dry Skin

By Melissa Conroy

Nearly every medicine cabinet in the US has a jar of petroleum jelly on stock. It is a ubiquitous compound slathered onto millions of lips, rough elbows and baby bottoms every day. Beauty contestants use it to keep their lips from sticking to their teeth, valets buff it on shoes for a quick shine and kids rub it on their jack-o-lanterns to keep the edges from rotting.

Petroleum jelly got its start in the oil rigs of Pennsylvania during the mid-1800s. Oil workers had to combat a paraffin-like material that would clog up their rigs, but they soon discovered that this annoying substance helped heal cuts and burns. A young chemist named Robert Chesebrough refined this waxy byproduct by distilling it into a gel. Chesebrough opened a factory in 1870 and began selling his topical product under the name of Vaseline, which quickly became a well-known brand and a standard treatment for a variety of skin complaints.

If you have cracked heels, dry lips, rough hands or chapped areas of skin, a layer of petroleum jelly can make it feel better. However, despite popular belief, petroleum jelly does not actually moisturize and is not absorbed by the skin. Rather, the substance works by locking in moisture and creating a barrier to prevent dehydration. This is one of the reasons why petroleum jelly can help heal cuts and burns: it prevents germs from entering the wound and seals in moisture, which helps the skin heal. A daub of petroleum jelly on your lips may feel good, but it can only prevent moisture from escaping, not actually moisturize.

To get the most skin-friendly use out of petroleum jelly, wash and thoroughly moisturize your skin, then apply a layer of petroleum jelly over it to seal in the moisture. One time-honored trick for dry feet or hands is to rub on skin cream, apply a layer of petroleum jelly, then put on a pair of socks or beauty gloves. Do this before bed, and you will wake up with smooth, soft skin.

Petroleum jelly is not just limited to topical care. People around the world use this substance to combat a variety of irksome problems. Here are some of the many things you can do with petroleum jelly.

– Apply a thin layer to the base of a new light bulb for easy removal later.

– Silence a squeaky hinge.

– Put a thin layer in a candlestick holder to prevent wax from building up.

– Remove chewing gum from wood by adding a daub of petroleum jelly and letting it sit a few minutes, then work the gum free.

– To Winterize your car battery, disconnect the terminals and clean them with a wire brush. Reconnect and then smear with petroleum jelly to prevent corrosion.

– Put a little on your wrists, then add perfume. The scent will last longer.

– When dying or hennaing your hair, smear a line of petroleum jelly along your scalp and on your ears to prevent skin staining.

– Remove lipstick from table linens by rubbing in a little petroleum jelly, then wash.

– Slip a stuck ring off your finger or remove junior’s hand from a jar with a layer of petroleum jelly.

– Melt a little petroleum jelly with some chocolate chips in the microwave to make a chocolate-flavored lip gloss or mix it with powdered Kool Aid.

In today’s world, we have the choice of a dizzying variety of products guaranteed to make our lives easier: triple antioxidant acai berry-infused skin cream, illuminating shoe polish wax, antibiotic laundry detergent, polydural lubricating oil and other fanciful concoctions. Yet for almost 150 years, petroleum jelly has been a best-loved, humble and reliable substance, faithfully soothing dry skin, loosening stubborn caps and holding rust at bay. In a world of choice and complexity, it is nice to know that sometimes a time-tested classic is the best and easiest solution to a sticky problem at hand.

Melissa can be reached at [email protected]



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