Body Talk: Petroleum Jelly

One of the most valuable takeaways from my dancing days is my admiration for the human body: The body is a temple; it never forgets.

Unlike our ballet predecessors, we live in a day and age influenced by medical and technological advancements. It also means that as dancers and consumers, we are more conscious than ever: critical of the foods we eat, where they come from, sustainability, and the long-term effects on our bodies. From toe pads and ointments to the development of new pointe shoes, there are endless choices for dance consumers. But despite the overwhelming selection, it’s important to make sound choices based on facts and figures–not just on hype alone. After all, the body is a dancer’s instrument and most prized possession; without it, there is no dance career.

If foods directly impact our body’s health and wellbeing, then it is no different from the topical products we apply to our skin, muscles, and body. Thankfully, we are beginning to realize the consequences of fast and short-term results.

Have you ever read the ingredients list on products you use? Probably not. If you did, you'd see mineral oil, paraffin, petrolatum, naptha, and formaldehyde hidden in the lengthy list. They are synonyms for petroleum jelly, an extremely controversial and dangerous ingredient.

What Is Petroleum Jelly?

Petroleum jelly is exactly what it sounds like: a gel-like byproduct of petroleum–a form of crude oil (what we use in cars and anything with an engine). It was first discovered by oil rig workers who noticed it building up on the machinery and in the bottom of empty oil barrels. And ever since its discovery, it has saturated the market and can be found in ointments, gels, creams, lubricants, etc.

At room temperature, petroleum jelly is an odorless semi-solid, consisting of a mixture of mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons (MOHA) and polyaromatics. As a major component of oil, natural gas, and pesticides, hydrocarbons contribute to the greenhouse effect and climate change. On the macro level, it depletes the ozone, reduces photosynthesis in plants, and increases occurrences of cancer and respiratory disorders in humans, but more about that later.

It Is Everywhere

The bad news is that petroleum jelly is everywhere in a wide range of moisturizers, conditioners, lip balms, baby care, sports, and beauty products. And even if you tried to avoid it, brands hide it under a pseudonym, such as mineral oil, toluene, and anything that begins with propyl or butyl. You'd have to be pretty savvy to try to avoid it.

So what does petroleum jelly have to do with dancers? The answer is a lot, but before we get into that detail, we need to understand how the skin works.

The Skin & Its 3 Layers

The skin comprises 3 distinct layers:

  1. The epidermis: Provides a waterproof barrier and creates our skin tone.

  2. The dermis: Lies beneath the epidermis and contains tough connective tissue, hair follicles, and sweat glands. Koi

  3. The subcutaneous layer: Made of fat and connective tissue (see diagram).

The dermis layer plays the most important role because it absorbs and transports a chemical from the outer surface of the skin into the skin and body. From there, it can pass into the bloodstream to cause problems in other parts of the body. Enter in petroleum jelly. According to the research paper on Evidence for cosmetics as a source of mineral oil contamination in women, there is strong evidence that mineral oil hydrocarbons are the greatest contaminant of the human body, approximately 1g per person. While 1g seems like an insignificant number, its effects are lasting. And the most probable ways of contamination include air inhalation, food intake, and dermal absorption.

A Deadly Duo: Petroleum Jelly & Skin

If petroleum jelly is so bad, why are brands using it in their products? Because the corporate benefits outweigh the cons for the end user. What consumers don’t know doesn’t hurt them, especially when it is a gradual build up and decline.

Petroleum jelly has unique properties that allow it to coat the skin and lock itself between cells in the skin’s lipid barrier. Brands tout that their products create long-lasting moisturized skin when petroleum jelly has no such properties. It creates an impermeable barrier, locking whatever is underneath the skin: dirt, sweat, bacteria, etc., giving you phantom moisturization. Petroleum jelly also blocks any other products applied on top of it, so any other additional products you use in your skincare regime is just money down the drain. And if that's not a warning, petroleum jelly is not water soluble. Even after excessive scrubbing in the shower, it doesn't not wash away easily and will build up in your system over time.

Xenoestrogen, the Catfish

Petroleum-based products are classified as xenoestrogens, chemicals that mimic the estrogen we produce naturally and contaminate it. The molecular structure of xenoestrogens is close enough to real estrogen for our bodies to think it’s real, leading to dominance in the body. They can interfere with the body’s endocrine system, increasing levels of estrogen and sending out unwanted hormonal signals that result in unwanted consequences of improperly balanced hormone volume, whether you are male or female. These effects include producing adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in humans and are believed to be most severe during prenatal or pregnancy exposure.

Common Symptoms of Xenoestrogen Dominance

  • Breast tenderness and/or fibrocystic breasts

  • Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)

  • Endometriosis

  • Uterine fibroids

  • Ovarian cysts

  • Mood changes (depression, anxiety, irritability)

  • Infertility

  • Decreased sex drive

  • Body composition changes, e.g. fat gain, especially

  • around hips & thighs

  • Increased PMS symptoms

  • Hair loss and thinning

  • Trouble sleeping

We Are Just Scratching the Surface

While we can’t reduce the amount of xenoestrogen already present and accumulated in our bodies, we can certainly make better decisions moving forward. By continuing to prioritize your health, do more research, and carefully examine the products you use topically in your routine. Don’t be fooled by brands that market faster results than others and question the list of ingredients on the back of the product.

Think of all the products you use daily as a dancer: deodorant, sports gels/ointments, lotions, lipstick, and makeup products (and makeup removers). Just know that petroleum jelly is hiding in your products.

The Takeaway

Petroleum jelly derives from oil. It’s safe to say that none of us would rub petrol on our skin and allow it to penetrate our skin into our bodies. While we can’t reverse the damage done, we can try to stop that xenoestrogen number from climbing. You only get one body. As a dancer, it’s your instrument and your most prized possession; without it, there is no dance career.

Additional Research

What does this mean for dancers? Let’s refer back to the findings of the research paper

Evidence for cosmetics as a source of mineral oil contamination in women and take another closer look:

Methods: 142 women undergoing cesarean section were enrolled in the research. A specific subcutaneous fat (the deepest skin layer) was removed before wound closure. On days 4 and 20 postpartum, milk samples were collected. These were analyzed for mineral oil-saturated hydrocarbons (MOSH). All of the women completed surveys on personal data, nutrition habits, and the use of cosmetics.

Results: The predominant predictor for MOSH was age, then body mass index, country of the main residence, number of previous childbirths, use of sunscreen in the present pregnancy, and use of hand creams and lipsticks in daily life were significant independent determinants.

Conclusion: The increase in MOSH concentration in human fat tissue with age suggests an accumulation over time. Cosmetics might be a relevant source of contamination.

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Until next time,