Can you recommend alternatives to petroleum jelly?

When you're addicted to the planet

There’s something deeply fascinating about a product as unadorned and plainly upfront as petroleum jelly.

Without any of the masquerading that most products do, pretending to be made of sugar and spice and everything nice, this stuff tells you right on the label what it’s made of: petroleum.

If it hadn’t been around in our parents’ and grandparents’ homes for eons, I’m not sure it would still fly off shelves, but there it sits comfortably in the bathrooms of countless Canadian homes circa 2013.

Petroleum jelly was discovered back in 1859 as the gunk that formed around the rods on oil rigs, often bunging up the equipment. Workers responsible for cleaning it off clearly figured out it had lubricating properties, and by 1872 the stuff was distilled from crude oil, refined, patented and sold as Vaseline petroleum jelly.

Generically known as petrolatum or mineral oil jelly, it’s now in everything: lipsticks, lotions, soaps, deodorants and, for some reason, lots of baby products.

It’s also used, along with petroleum-based mineral oil and paraffin, in that mysterious coating that comes on raw produce like apples, eggplant, cukes and pears to lock in moisture. (The Canadian Produce Marketing Association says these waxes are indigestible and “will pass through the body without breaking down or being absorbed.”)

On the sustainability front, well, it’s a petroleum product, so it inherently comes with all the baggage that accompanies all petroleum. Drilling for it on land or at sea comes with an ocean of ecological implications, and when an oil rig goes down, no doubt it’s taking with it all the polluting hydrocarbons in that raw “rod wax,” along with much more.

Speaking of hydrocarbons, petrolatum can easily contain breast-cancer-linked polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons as an “impurity,” though the industry says its cosmetic grade petrolatum is free of these bad boys.

The EU is a lot more vigilant about the whole thing, mandating that any petroleum used in cosmetics disclose its full refining history to prove its safety.

Health Canada stands by Canadian petrolatum’s safety, saying, “At this time there have been no reports of unacceptable impurities (like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) in petrolatum found in products regulated by Health Canada.”

Toxin-wise, the cosmetic rankers at Environmental Working Group are more worried about the formaldehyde-releasing preservatives and estrogenic sunscreen chems in Vaseline’s lotions than they are about Vaseline’s Petroleum Jelly, and I’d agree with them.

That’s not to say Petroleum Jelly doesn’t have other shortcomings. It may be a good barrier cream, keeping moisture in, but that’s not always a good thing. It doesn’t really let skin breath. Studies on extremely low-birth-weight babies in neonatal units have found that petrolatum ointments are actually linked to higher rates of systemic candida. The “barrier” ointment created a breeding ground for fungi.

Plus smothering your lips with it stops them from producing their own moisture (enter lip balm addiction). Personally, I say, skip petrol-laced personal care altogether. Luckily, there are endless petrochemical-free products for your body grooming and beautifying pleasure at health stores.

If you’re looking for one all-purpose product to replace it, you’ll find Alba makes an Unpetroleum Original MultiPurpose Jelly with castor oil, coconut oil, beeswax and vitamin E.

Live Clean’s Non-Petroleum Jelly is pretty much the same thing minus the coconut oil, but Canadian-made. It’s marketed for babies but can be used any way you’d use Vaseline.

Or make your own by melting 1 ounce of grated beeswax over low heat and mixing it with 1 cup of natural oil such as sunflower (and toss in a little coconut oil if you like).

Coconut oil is fantastic on everything from eczema-ridden hands to cracking feet and chaffing bottoms – especially since it has natural anti-fungal, antibacterial properties. Okay, so the oil does get hard if your house is cooler than 24°C in winter (as it should be, ecoholics!), but you can soften up a chunk by briefly rubbing it in your hands.

Easier still, reach for some sunflower oil. It’s a lighter moisturizer than coconut or petroleum jelly but still super-protective. A study in the Lancet found that rubbing sunflower oil on premature babies helped stop infections on their underdeveloped skin.

Don’t you love it when simple cures come in simple packages and don’t involve oil rigs?

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