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Vaseline: The Petrochemical Marvel

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

#61 Science in History

14th May 1878

Today in 1878, Vaseline is trademarked by chemist Robert Chesebrough.

Chesebrough had previously been involved in clarifying kerosene from the oil of sperm whales.* In 1859, he travelled to Titusville, Pennsylvania - birthplace of the American oil industry - to search for new products. It was here that his interest settled on a gummy residue known as rod wax. The substance was considered a nuisance by oil workers since it clogged up the equipment they used. It was, however, found to promote healing and alleviate painful skin conditions due to contact with the crude oil.

In New York, Chesebrough purified his "petroleum jelly" - a translucent, odourless gel-like substance that would later be named Vaseline (from the German word for water and the Greek word for oil). Chesebrough chose the name to emphasize the water-like properties of the substance, despite being derived from oil. He established ‘The Chesebrough Manufacturing Company’ and stayed as president of the company until 1908. In 1987, Unilever took the manufacturing company under its wing.

Vaseline gained immense popularity during the late 19th century and early 20th century. Its versatile properties and affordable price made it widely accessible to the public. One of Vaseline's notable properties is its ability to create a protective barrier on the skin. This barrier locks in moisture and prevents water loss, making it an effective moisturizer and skin protectant. Vaseline's medicinal applications became widely recognized during World War II. It was used to treat minor cuts, burns, and skin abrasions in soldiers, earning it the reputation of a "war wound remedy." Vaseline also became a staple in the beauty industry, often used by makeup artists to create a glossy effect on the skin. Vaseline has even found its place in the field of art with some artists using it to create unique textures and effects in their paintings.

Here are some surprising ways Vaseline can been used:

Moisturiser: Vaseline can be used as a moisturiser to hydrate and soothe dry skin, especially on areas like elbows, knees, and feet. Also used on the paws of dogs!

Lip balm: Vaseline on your lips helps protect against dryness and chapping.

Makeup remover: A small amount on a cotton pad can remove stubborn makeup, including mascara and lipstick. Apparently, it’s also good for removing stains caused by lipstick.

Cuticle softener: Massaging Vaseline into cuticles will soften them and prevent dryness, making it easier to push them back and maintain healthy nails.

Skin protectant: A thin layer of Vaseline can create a barrier on your skin, protecting it from windburn, chafing, and other harsh elements.

Heel and foot balm: Applying Vaseline to your heels and feet, then covering with socks overnight, helps to heal cracked and dry skin.

Eyelash conditioner: A tiny amount on lashes before bed can help condition and strengthen them, potentially promoting healthier growth.

Lubricant: Vaseline can be used as a lubricant for various purposes, such as easing the insertion of earrings or temporarily lubricating squeaky hinges.

Prevent hair dye stains: A thin layer of Vaseline along the hairline and ears before dyeing your hair helps prevent the dye from staining your skin.

Leather conditioner: Apply a small amount of Vaseline, then buff with a soft cloth to condition and revive the appearance of leather.

*The extraction of oil from sperm whales is, thankfully, illegal and considered unethical due to the endangerment and protected status of these animals. Commercial whaling and the production of whale oil, including sperm whale oil, have been banned in most countries since the 1970s due to conservation efforts.


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