Petroleum jelly is a mixture of hydrocarbons, with a melting point that depends on the exact proportions. The melting point is typically between 40 and 70 °C (105 and 160 °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 has 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. It is a semi-solid, in that it holds its shape indefinitely like a solid, but it can be forced to take the shape of its container without breaking apart, like a liquid, though it does not flow on its own.
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 of petroleum jelly exploit it’s lubricating and coating properties, including use on dry lips and dry skin. Below are some examples of the uses of petroleum jelly.
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.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends keeping skin injuries moist with petroleum jelly to reduce scarring. A verified medicinal use is to protect and prevent moisture loss of the skin of a patient in the initial post-operative period following laser skin resurfacing.
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—ear, nose, and throat surgeons—for nasal moisture and epistaxis treatment, and to combat nasal crusting. Large studies have found petroleum jelly applied to the nose for short durations to have no significant side effects.
Historically, it was also consumed for internal use and even promoted as “Vaseline confection”.
Most petroleum jelly today is used as an ingredient in skin lotions and cosmetics, providing various types of skincare and protection by minimizing friction or reducing moisture loss, or by functioning as a grooming aid, e. g. pomade.
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 the water when training or during channel crossings or long ocean swims. It can prevent chilling of the face due to the 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 mustache wax.
Petroleum jelly can be used to reduce the friction between skin and clothing during various sports activities, for example, to prevent chafing of the seat region of cyclists or the nipples of long-distance runners wearing loose T-shirts, and is commonly used in the groin area of wrestlers and footballers.
Petroleum jelly is commonly used as a personal lubricant because it does not dry out like water-based lubricants and has a distinctive “feel”, different from that of K-Y and related methylcellulose products. However, it is not recommended for use with condoms during sexual activity because it swells latex and thus increases the chance of rupture.
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 motorboats 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 the 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 “Weather-strips on Doors, Hood, Tailgate, Sunroof”. The publication states “…before applying a new coat of lubricant…” “Only acid-free lubricants may be used, for example, glycerin, Vaseline, tire mounting paste, etc. These lubricants should be rubbed in, and excessive lubricant wiped off with a soft cloth.” It is used in bullet lubricant compounds. Petrolatum is also used as a light lubricating grease as well as an anti-seize assembling grease.
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 modeling clay such as plasticine, as part of a mix of hydrocarbons including those with greater (paraffin wax) and lesser (mineral oil) molecular weights. It is used as a tack reducer additive to printing inks to reduce paper lint “picking” from uncalendared paper stocks. It can be used as a release agent for plaster molds and castings. It is used in the leather industry as a waterproofing cream.