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.
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 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 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:
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.
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.
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.
It can also be used to lubricate the anus before taking rectal temperature.
It can be used as a softener for cuticles and lips.