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 manufacture of vaseline is quite simple. When the lighter liquids, gases, etc., of the petroleum oil have been distilled over, the remaining product, the tar, is placed in a large open iron boiler, which is suspended over a hot fire in the open air until deodorized; then it is allowed to cool. In a hot-air chamber (about 50°[C]), arranged in rows, are large inverted tin cones filled with bone-black; upon these the deodorized tar is poured. At the end of a few hours, the tar comes through in a state of “white vaseline;” after awhile, the bone-black becomes partially exhausted, the product is no more “white”, but “blond,” and as the operation progresses, the bone-black becoming weaker in its absorbing powers, the “blond,” passes into a “red.” Thus we have white, blond, and red vaselines. This mode of manufacture constitutes the American process.
Although Chesebrough’s method of making petrolatum is no longer used, distillation and filtering still form the basis of the refining process today.
Petrolatum/petroleum jelly was known by other names including mineral jelly, paraffin jelly and soft paraffin. It was also commonly called vaseline by nineteenth century chemists, medical professionals and the general public alike, even though the ‘Vaseline’ trade-mark was vigorously defended by the Chesebrough Manufacturing Company.
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 (Meyer, 1968). 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.
The white form is relatively colourless and odourless and will not oxidise (go rancid) over time, which gives it a long shelf life and meant that jars of petroleum jelly could sit in medicine cabinets for years. Previously, ointments, creams and cosmetics were made with fats and oils from plants and animals. Over time these 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 also be utilised so prices dropped, meaning that cosmetics could now be bought by all women not simply the upper ten per cent.
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, making it an ideal base.
Chesebrough suggested that Vaseline 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 also been employed in such things as food production, electrical insulation, rust prevention and paper manufacture. The use to which it was put was partly determined by the level of impurities left behind in the filtration process. White petrolatum/petroleum had low levels of impurities, while red petrolatum/petroleum had higher levels, making it unsuitable for some purposes.
In commerce, three kinds of vaseline are met with, different in color, but similar in properties. White vaseline is generally used internally, for cold cream, certain prescriptions, ophthalmic pomades, etc. The blond vaseline is used in pharmaceutical pomades and ointments, skin diseases, and as a hair-dressing. The red vaseline is used mostly for veterinary purposes and with excellent results; it is also used in making colored ointments and a number of various preparations for the preservation of leather, wood, etc.
Medicinally, white petrolatum/petroleum jelly was originally sold for use on cuts and burns, but it was also 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 white petrolatum/petroleum jelly was introduced into medicine cabinets, women found a number of cosmetic uses for it, 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 the 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 petrolatum/petroleum jelly 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 and 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 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.
Cleansing Cream % 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.
Paste Rouge % 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 one of the few cosmetic ingredients that can be sold, used, and kept – pretty much ‘as is’ – in the bathroom cabinet.
Updated: 3rd August 2013
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