Let’s talk about petroleum. Not in terms of it’s role in fueling our transport or making our plastic packaging, but how it has become such a normal component of our cosmetics. It’s slippery self has slipped in and it’s really better that it slip on out again, in all honesty. Today I’m discussing a little bit about what it actually is and why there are better alternatives you can be using.
To commence with a product with which everyone in familiar: Vaseline. Your tub of vaseline starts its lifecycle amongst a thick sludge of crude oil beneath the sea bed or land. It’s drilled, collected and then undergoes a process known as ‘fractional distillation‘. This process splits the oil into groups based on hydrocarbon chain-length. There are the short-chain hydrocarbons that are the most volatile and these become our gaseous and liquid fuels. These are the most desirable. The heavier, long-chain hydrocarbons (the sludgier stuff) that are less volatile are actually considered waste products of the petroleum industry. However, they’re scooped up and used in everything from industrial lubricants such as motor oil to fertilisers, pesticides and many, MANY cosmetic and pharmaceutical products.
So, we’ve got our super obvious petroleum-based products like Vaseline, but this same ingredient is found in a whole host of topical skincare, bodycare and cosmetic products under names such as: petroleum jelly, mineral oil, paraffin, and petrolatum in various different wax to liquid oil proportions. I’ll use these terms interchangeably throughout the rest of this post.
Why it’s not worth a moment’s notice
Mineral oil is an emollient and applying it to a surface will prevent moisture from evaporating from that surface. Hence why it has a reputation for being great for dry skin. Dry skin doesn’t want any more moisture lost, so slathering on a layer of mineral oil surely does the job, right? Wrong. It acts as a barrier, but offers nothing to soothe the dry skin. It offers no kind of nourishment. Worse still, a recent article showed that long-term use of paraffin-based products actually makes us and our textiles more flammable. There have been several tragic deaths caused by heavy-usage of these kinds of topical treatments for conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.
You can see the appeal though, can’t you? Petroleum jelly is dirty cheap, has a long shelf life, plus it seems like a great moisturiser, lubricant and cure-it-all for any kind of ailment. But that’s really all it is: an imposter. It appears in so many of our cosmetic products because it is an emollient and can hold moisture in. But that’s assuming you’ve already cleaned and moisturised the part of your body in question first, which we wouldn’t because we’re often buying the moisturiser containing the mineral oil with the promise that it will do the moisturising!
The good news is that there are so many things that you can use instead of wasting your money on cheap, crappy, petroleum-based fillers. Coconut, olive, avocado, sweet almond or one of the many other natural plant oils do an excellent job at giving your skin or hair the nourishment it needs. There are also shea and cocoa butters as richer components to add to the mix.
There are a plethora of alternatives on the market. All you have to do is start reading the ingredients lists on the products you’re picking up off the shelves and you’ll soon come to recognise which brands are investing in quality over quantity. Or you can go one step further and simply make your own. Scour the internet until you find a recipe that you like. For the face, try here and body here. That should get the cogs turning.
FYI Tattoo Lovers
It’s been a long time since I eradicated petroleum-based products from my household and as you can imagine, I’ve never looked back. Bar one. My tattoo ointment. Like most people, I use either a specific tattoo balm (petroleum-based) or Bepanthen nappy rash cream (also petroleum-based). I just assumed that it was the one product that I’d have to suck it up and use. However, it was a revelation to meet an artist this year who recommended coconut oil. I’ve never experienced that recommendation before and he was so right. And of course it made sense; much like any other scabby cut that needs nourishment, why not feed my skin coconut oil?! Here I was not even following my own logic. It worked and it’s all I’ll use on my tattoos from now on. Thanks Merry!
You may well have no negative reactions and if you enjoy the petroleum-based products that you’re using, by all means go ahead. But I’d like to put it out there that you only have one body to love and nourish and keep looking its best. No matter how many layers you slather on, no amount of petroleum jelly will feed your skin the goodness it needs to regenerate and replenish.