Chloe Rhodes examines the origins of petroleum jelly and reveals why it is so popular :
Last month, a reader of the Daily Telegraph wrote to the paper’s GP columnist to report the miraculous healing properties of Vaseline. She had repeatedly applied a coat of the bathroom cabinet staple to two troublesome scars on her leg, which quickly disappeared, and then to a mole on her face that subsequently dropped off.
A week after her letter was published, the newspaper’s mail bag was bulging with letters singing the praises of petroleum jelly for the treatment of everything from nappy rash and chapped lips to psoriasis and piles. One reader said it is the best face cream she had ever used a beauty secret she shared with Hollywood stars Joan Collins, Meg Ryan and Scarlett Johansson.
But what is it that makes this pot of grease so great?
Vaseline was discovered in 1859 by an English-born American chemist, Robert Augustus Chesebrough. On a visit to the oilrigs in Pennsylvania, he noticed that the workers used a sticky petroleum by-product that accumulated around the drill rods to help heal cuts and burns. After almost a decade of research, he perfected a process for distilling from this residue a translucent, odourless gel he called petroleum jelly. In 1872, Vaseline was registered as a trademark.
There are two theories about how the name developed. One is that it is a blend of the German word for water wasser and the Greek word for oil elaion, the other that Chesebrough named it after the vases in which he used to store his mysterious new product during his research.
Unable to generate interest from bulk buyers, he loaded up a horse-drawn wagon with one-ounce bottles of his new wonder jelly and touted it across New York state. He deliberately burned patches of his skin to demonstrate Vaseline’s healing powers and within two years he was selling a jar a minute.
Chesebrough was convinced that his discovery contained some magical chemical, insisting that he be covered from head to toe in the stuff when he was diagnosed with pleurisy (from which, incidentally, he recovered). But in fact, there is no secret active ingredient. Vaseline promotes faster healing simply by creating the best conditions for the skin to heal itself.
Professor John Hawk, honorary consultant dermatologist at St Thomas Hospital, London, explains, Vaseline is an occlusive moisturizer, which means that it creates a barrier on the surface of the skin. This is beneficial because it helps the skin to retain moisture, which is crucial to the healing process, and also because it keeps wounds sterile by preventing harmful bacteria from getting in.
These two attributes are what give Vaseline its cure-all reputation. Ailments such as cold sores and the blisters caused by shingles are eased by Vaseline because it keeps the skin around them remain moist and supple, which stops the scabs from cracking and falling off too soon.
It is useful as a face cream for the same reason the more moisture that can be retained in the skin, the plumper and less wrinkled it looks. Dry skin conditions, including eczema and even psoriasis, benefit from this added moisturisation too, but also from the fact that a Vaseline barrier reduces the penetration of irritants. Eczema is probably caused by allergy-causing molecules getting into the skin, says Prof. Hawk. Any occlusive moisturiser would help to prevent this, but Vaseline is more bland than most, there are no perfumes or colourants, so it is less likely to cause irritation.
Nappy rash, caused by the chafing of a wet nappy, can be prevented by the application of a thin layer of Vaseline to the baby’s bottom, and this sealant quality has also been suggested in the British Medical Journal as a means of staunching a nose bleed when applied just inside the nostrils, though more research is needed to test its effectiveness.
Even mouth ulcers, which are notoriously tricky to shift, can be successfully treated if dabbed dry with a tissue before being coated in a layer of gel which protects ulcers from the acid in the mouth and allows them to heal. Fresh burns, however, should not be treated with Vaseline until the area has cooled.
Emilie Lien from Unilever, which now owns the brand, is delighted by the enthusiasm of consumers for her product. None of these uses are official, but it’s amazing how people have developed so many different uses for just one product. We now make 15 million jars of petroleum jelly each year so we know there’s a huge demand. In fact, over a ton of Vaseline has been used since 1981 just to help protect London Marathon runners from chafing and blistered toes.
And the miraculous mole removal? Prof. Hawk thinks he may have an explanation: It seems unlikely that moisturising could remove a true mole from within the skin, but it could help to get rid of seborrhoeic keratoses harmless, crusty growths that are often pigmented like moles but look as if they are stuck to the surface of the skin. It’s not a clinically proven method, but the good thing about Vaseline is that it’s so bland you can use it as much as you like.
It certainly didn’t do Robert Chesebrough any harm he lived to the age of 96 and attributed his longevity to the spoonful of Vaseline he ate every day.
Source: The Telegraph (Kolkata,India)