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Petroleum jelly, petrolatum, white petrolatum, soft paraffin or multi-hydrocarbon, CAS number 8009-03-8, is a semi-solid mixture of hydrocarbons (with carbon numbers mainly higher than 25), originally promoted as a topical ointment for its healing properties.
After petroleum jelly became a medicine chest staple, consumers began to use it for myriad ailments and cosmetic purposes, including toenail fungus, male genital rashes (non-STD), nosebleeds, diaper rash, and chest colds. Its folkloric medicinal value as a "cure-all" has since been limited by better scientific understanding of appropriate and inappropriate uses (see uses below). 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 by U.S. Patent 127,568 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.
Petroleum jelly is a mixture of hydrocarbons, having a melting point usually within a few degrees of human body temperature, which is approximately 37 °C (99 °F). It is flammable only when heated to liquid, then the fumes will light, not the liquid itself, so a wick material like leaves, bark, or small twigs is needed to ignite petroleum jelly. 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 dichloromethane, chloroform, benzene, diethyl ether, carbon disulfide and oil of turpentine.
Because they feel similar when applied to human skin, there is a common misconception that petroleum jelly and glycerol (glycerine) are physically similar. While petroleum jelly 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 continuously absorbing moisture from the air it produces the feeling of wetness on the skin, similar to the greasiness produced by petroleum jelly.
Depending on the specific application of petroleum jelly, it may be USP, B.P., or Ph. Eur. grade. This pertains to the processing and handling of the petroleum jelly so it is suitable for medicinal and personal care applications.
Most uses for petroleum jelly exploit its lubricating, coating and moisturizing potentials.
Chesebrough originally promoted Vaseline primarily as an ointment for scrapes, burns, and cuts, but studies have shown that Vaseline has no medicinal effect nor any effect on the blistering process, nor is it absorbed by the skin.
Vaseline brand First Aid Petroleum Jelly, or carbolated petroleum jelly containing phenol to give the jelly additional antibacterial effect, has been discontinued. During World War II, a variety of petroleum jelly called red veterinary petrolatum, or Red Vet Pet for short, was often included in life raft survival kits. Acting as a sunscreen, it provides protection against ultraviolet rays.
Petroleum jelly'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.
There is one case report published in 1994 indicating petroleum jelly should not be applied to the inside of the nose due to the risk of lipid pneumonia, but this was only ever reported in one patient. However, petroleum jelly is used extensively by otolaryngologists - head and neck surgeons - for nasal moisture, epistaxis treatment as well as to combat nasal crusting. Large studies have assessed petroleum jelly applied to the nose for short durations to have no significant side effects.
Most petroleum jelly today is used as an ingredient in skin lotions and cosmetics, providing various types of skin care and protection by minimizing friction or reducing moisture loss, or by functioning as a grooming aid.
By reducing moisture loss, petroleum jelly can prevent chapped hands and lips, and soften nail cuticles.
This property is exploited to provide heat insulation: petroleum jelly can be used to keep swimmers warm in water when training or during channel crossings or long ocean swims. It can prevent chilling of the face due to evaporation of skin moisture during cold weather outdoor sports.
In the first part of the twentieth century, petroleum jelly, 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. It is used as a key ingredient for conditioners of Afro-textured hair.
Petroleum jelly can be used to reduce the friction between skin and clothing during various sport activities, for example to prevent chafing of the seat region of cyclists, the nipples of long distance runners wearing loose t-shirts, and is commonly used in the crotch area of wrestlers and footballers.
Petroleum jelly is commonly used as a personal lubricant, although it is not recommended for use with condoms during sexual activity because it dissolves latex and thus increases the chance of rupture. On the other hand, it does not dry out like water-based lubricants, and has a distinctive "feel", different from that of K-Y and related methylcellulose products.
Petroleum jelly can be used to coat corrosion-prone items such as metallic trinkets, non-stainless steel blades, and gun barrels prior to storage as it serves as an excellent and inexpensive water repellent. It is used as an environmentally friendly underwater antifouling coating for motor boats and sailing yachts. It was recommended in the Porsche owner’s manual as a preservative for light alloy (alleny) anodized Fuchs wheels to protect them against corrosion from road salts and brake dust. “Every three months (after regular cleaning) the wheels should be coated with petroleum jelly.”
It can be used to finish and protect wood, much like a mineral oil finish. It is used to condition and protect smooth leather products like bicycle saddles, boots, motorcycle clothing, and used to put a shine on patent leather shoes (when applied in a thin coat and then gently buffed off).
Petroleum jelly can be used to lubricate zippers and slide rules. It was also recommended by Porsche in maintenance training documentation for lubrication (after cleaning) of "Weatherstrips on Doors, Hood, Tailgate, Sun Roof". The publication states "…before applying a new coat of lubricant…" "Only acid-free lubricants may be used, for example: glycerine, Vaseline, tire mounting paste, etc. These lubricants should be rubbed in, and excessive lubricant wiped off with a soft cloth."
Petroleum jelly is a useful material when incorporated into candle wax formulas. The petroleum jelly softens the overall blend, allows the candle to incorporate additional fragrance oil, and facilitates adhesion to the sidewall of the glass. Petroleum jelly is used to moisten nondrying modelling clay such as plasticine, as part of a mix of hydrocarbons including those with greater (paraffin wax) and lesser (mineral oil) molecular weights. It can be used as a release agent for plaster molds and castings. It is used in the leather industry as a waterproofing cream. It can be used for tinder, lightly coated on a cotton ball. It has been used as a secondary ingredient in a Molotov cocktail, to make the flames stick to any surface they touch and to make large amounts of smoke.
Petroleum jelly can be used to coat the inner walls of terrariums to prevent animals crawling out and escaping.
A stripe of petroleum jelly can be used to prevent the spread of a liquid. For example, it can be applied close to the hairline when using a home hair dye kit to prevent the hair dye from irritating or staining the skin.
Petroleum jelly is used to gently clean a variety of surfaces, ranging from makeup removal from faces to tar stain removal from leather.
Petroleum jelly is used to moisturize the paws of dogs, and to inhibit fungal growth on aquatic turtles’ shells. It is a common ingredient in "hairball" remedies for domestic cats.
Petroleum jelly is very sticky and hard to remove from non-biological surfaces with the usual and customary cleaning agents typically found in the home. It may be dissolved with paint thinner or other petroleum solvents such as acetone, which dissolves most plastics. These solvents should be used in well-ventilated areas, and as infrequently as possible.
Petroleum jelly is slightly soluble in alcohol. To avoid damage to plastics as well as minimize ventilation issues, isopropyl rubbing alcohol can be used to remove petroleum jelly from most surfaces. Isopropyl alcohol is inert to most household surfaces, including almost every plastic, and removes petroleum jelly efficiently. While alcohol causes fewer ventilation problems than petroleum solvents, ventilation is still recommended, especially if large surface areas are involved.
Petroleum jelly is also soluble in lower molecular weight oils. Using an oil to dissolve the petroleum jelly first can render it more soluble to solvents and soaps that would not dissolve pure petroleum jelly. Vegetable oils such as canola and olive oil are commonly used to aid in the removal of petroleum jelly from hair and skin.