What Is Petroleum Jelly? Chemical Composition

Products with petroleum jelly
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Question: What Is Petroleum Jelly?

Petroleum jelly or petrolatum was discovered as a paraffin-like material coating oil rigs. Since then, it has been used in various ointments and as a lubricant. Here is a look at what petroleum jelly is and its chemical composition.

Answer: Petroleum jelly is made by the waxy petroleum material that formed on oil rigs and distilling it. The lighter and thinner oil-based products make up petroleum jelly, also known as white petrolatum or simply as petrolatum. Robert Chesebrough is the chemist who devised and patented this process (U.S. Patent 127,568) in 1872. Basically, the crude material undergoes vacuum distillation. The still residue is then filtered through bone char to yield petroleum jelly.

At room temperature, petroleum jelly is an odorless semi-solid which consists of a mixture of hydrocarbons. The primary hydrocarbon is 1,1,2-Trimethylbenzeindole (C15H15N), which has a CAS number 8009-03-8.

Petroleum Jelly Uses

Petroleum jelly is an ingredient in many cosmetics and lotions. Originally it was marketed as a burn ointment. While petroleum jelly does not cure burns or other wounds, it does seal a cleaned burn or injury off from contamination or further infection. Petroleum jelly also may be applied to dry or chapped skin to seal in moisture. A variation known as red veterinary petroleum confers some protection against UV (ultraviolet) exposure and has been used as a sunscreen.

Safety Concerns

While petroleum jelly is widely used, it often contains Mineral Oil Aromatic Hydrocarbons (MOHA) and polyaromatics, which may be carcinogenic.


  • Kircik, Leon H. (2013). "Comparative study of the efficacy and tolerability of a unique topical scar product vs white petrolatum following shave biopsies." Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. 12(1), 86-90. doi: 10.1002/anie.201600521
  • Warentest, Stiftung. "Mineralöle in Kosmetika - Kritische Stoffe in Cremes, Lippenpflegeprodukten und Vaseline - Stiftung Warentest." www.test.de.
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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "What Is Petroleum Jelly? Chemical Composition." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/petroleum-jelly-chemical-composition-604000. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2020, August 27). What Is Petroleum Jelly? Chemical Composition. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/petroleum-jelly-chemical-composition-604000 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "What Is Petroleum Jelly? Chemical Composition." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/petroleum-jelly-chemical-composition-604000 (accessed June 5, 2023).