Robert Chesebrough began selling petrolatum under the trade name Vaseline Petroleum Jelly in 1870. After a slow start it went on to become an international best seller. More importantly, it was the first in a long line of petroleum derivatives used in the developing cosmetics industry.
Chesebrough made petroleum jelly by subjecting a residue of West Virginian crude oil – known as rod wax – to a vacuum distillation process, followed by filtration through bone-black (animal charcoal). The process produced a near odourless, straw-coloured, oily paste. Although Chesebrough’s method of making petrolatum is no longer used, distillation and filtering still form the basis of the refining process today.
Although the term ‘vaseline’ was commonly used by nineteenth century chemists, medical professionals and the general public alike when talking about petrolatum/petroleum jelly, it was also known by other names such as mineral jelly, paraffin jelly and soft paraffin. Chesebrough does not appear to have trademarked Vaseline until after the Trademark Act of 1905 was passed by which time ‘vaseline’ was firmly established in the language of the day.
See also: Chesebrough Manufacturing Company
Petrolatum/petroleum jelly is made up of solid mineral waxes and liquid mineral oils. However, this wax-and-oil mixture has some surprises. If mineral oil and mineral wax are mixed together, a product similar to petroleum jelly can be made but it is not a true petrolatum as it will separate over time. In 1925, F. W. Breth speculated that a third component was present in petroleum jelly that kept it stable. He termed this material ‘protosubstance’ and extracted it. Unfortunately, no amount of it would make real petrolatum/petroleum jelly from a mixture of mineral wax and mineral oil so his idea was largely discredited but it added to the belief that petrolatum/petroleum jelly is a complex mixture. A case can therefore be made that as petrolatum/petroleum jelly is refined not made it is a natural product.
Petrolatum/petroleum jelly is now considered to be a colloidal system made up of a solid phase (mineral waxes) which take up the liquid phase to produce a jelly-like mass. It is important that the raw material from which petroleum jelly is extracted – paraffin-base and mixed-base crudes – are not subjected to intense heat or strong chemicals during refining, otherwise the oil-in-wax system will be broken, something Chesebrough must have discovered during the long hours he spent extracting it.
The amount of wax and oil in different blends of petrolatum/petroleum jelly varies. Those with higher levels of wax will be harder and have a higher melting point while those with more oil will be softer and with a lower melting point. These differences need to be taken into account when petroleum jelly is used in cosmetic formulations, e.g. softer petrolatum/petroleum jelly could be used in a skin cream while a harder petrolatum/petroleum jelly might be used in a lip balm.
Petrolatum/petroleum jelly has a number of characteristics that make it attractive to cosmetic chemists. Firstly, it is an emollient. It achieves this effect by restricting water loss from the skin, making it an ideal skin-conditioning agent for dry (xerotic) skin. Chesebrough noted this when he suggested in his 1872 patent that it was good for chapped hands. It is an occlusive and although very tacky was used in the past by some women in place of a cold cream, vanishing cream or moisturiser.
It is relatively colourless and odourless and will not oxidise (go rancid) over time which gives a long shelf life. Jars of petroleum jelly can sit in medicine cabinets for years. In the nineteenth century ointments, creams and cosmetics were made with fats and oils from plants and animals. Over time these fats and oils would go rancid and the ointment, cream or cosmetic would change colour, start to smell, cause skin problems and generally become unpleasant so the use of petroleum jelly was a seen as a great improvement.
Preservatives and chemical processes such as hydrogenation mean that shelf life is no longer the problem it once was but in the early part of the twentieth century, when cosmetics began to be mass-produced, petrolatum/petroleum jelly and other petroleum based ingredients played an important role in enabling cosmetics to escape from being made up by the local drugstore, chemist or pharmacy. Cosmetics could now be stored for long periods of time and distributed over wide areas, even to places where the climate was hot. Economies of scale and other advantages of industrial production could be utilised and so prices dropped, meaning that cosmetics could now be bought by all women not simply the upper ten percent.
Petrolatum/petroleum jelly is also chemically inert which means that most drugs and other chemicals can be mixed with it without any chemical action taking place.
Chesebrough originally suggested that his petroleum jelly could be used in “carrying, stuffing, and oiling all kinds of leather”, as a lubricant, a hair pomade and for chapped hands. It has maintained this diverse range of uses and has been employed in such things as food production, electrical insulation, rust prevention and paper manufacture.
Medically it was originally sold for use on cuts and burns but was soon being advertised as a cure for a range of skin problems including blisters, sores, chaffing and sunburn, for rheumatism and haemorrhoids and, when taken orally, as a cure for colds, sore throats, diphtheria, dysentery and other diseases.
Once introduced into medicine cabinets women found a number of cosmetic uses for petrolatum/petroleum jelly some of which have persisted to this day. It was used on lips to reduce cracking, on eyebrows and eyelashes in the hope that it would ‘make them thicken and grow’ and on skin to ‘beautify the complexion’.
Cosmetic chemists also used it and similar petroleum based ingredients in a wide range of products. As well as making soap Chesebrough also used it to make ‘Vaseline Cold Cream’ and ‘Vaseline Pomade’ for hair. Hair products would prove to be one of the more common early used of petrolatum where it replaced beef, suet, lard, olive oil, lanolin, cocoa butter or other fats.
Petroleum jelly is much used in pomade manufacture. In fact, petroleum jelly, like all hydrocarbons of like nature, does not turn rancid, and only requires a relatively small amount of aromatic material in order to acquire a very pleasant perfume, and, if a little soft, can easily be hardened by a slight addition of beeswax, or, better still, of ceresine, without modifying the basic products. Further, petroleum jelly is an efficient lubricant and does not mat the hair to the same extent as oxidisable fatty oils; thus its role is clearly defined in this part of the manufacture, and if we do not advise its exclusive use, it is because its action on the hair is not quite the same as natural fats. Petroleum jelly will often appear in the formulae, concurrently with pomade bases, and for certain purposes we shall point out some instances where petroleum jelly is the only vehicle employed.
These uses are all relatively simplistic uses and do not indicate the true importance of petrolatum to the cosmetics industry. This would come later when it was incorporated into almost every form of skin care and cosmetic product including cleansers, skin creams, moisturisers, hand creams, rouge, lipsticks, eye shadows, sunscreens, nail whiteners and deodorants.
Vaseline cold cream.
White vaseline 2 lbs. Fat-almond oil 1 lb. White beeswax 10 ozs. Bergamot oil 14 drachms. French rose-geranium oil and Turkish rose oil each 20 drachms.
U.S.P. Petrolatum 19.0% White Mineral Oil 63.0 White beeswax 6.0 White Paraffin 11.5 Perfume 0.5
Melt the beeswax and petrolatum together; add the white oil; perfume when cool.
Petrolatum, U.S.P. 77.0% Cetyl Alcohol 3.0 Cocoa Butter 3.0 White Beeswax 3.0 Spermaceti 5.0 Benzoic Acid 0.1 Cosmetic Lake Color 8.0 Perfume 0.9
Melt the ingredients together, mix and mill, adding perfume last.
Petrolatum/petroleum jelly has been in continuous use for over 140 years. It is low cost, an excellent occlusive and very safe. It remains the only cosmetic ingredient that can be sold, used and kept pretty much ‘as is’ in the bathroom cabinet.
10th August 2011
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