Economists sometimes fear for the sanity of the human race. They shook their heads in bemusement recently, when psychologists carried out tests which showed that when consumers buy o-t-c drugs and cosmetics they’re guided more by their price than by their fitness for purpose. The more expensive they are, the more effective they’re judged to be. Women, and nowadays men as well, are anxious to prevent ageing changes in their skin. In this anti-senescent quest, they’ll spend the earth on the very latest moisturising creams, a job which can be done just as well by Vaseline, a far cheaper remedy. Is this an instance of familiarity breeding contempt?
The development of Vaseline is an excellent example of serendipity. For centuries ointments and salves were made from animal greases and vegetable oils. These had the great disadvantage that they quickly went rancid. This problem was solved at the start of the nineteenth century, when grease welling up from the ground in oil rich areas was mopped up with rags and used as a skin care ointment. It was called ‘rock oil’, to differentiate it from the vegetable oils and animal fats, and had the great advantage that it neither smelt nor decomposed. Further progress was made when engineers sunk the first oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859, and were troubled by a greasy gunge which gathered around their piston pumps. This ‘rod wax’ was treated initially as an unmitigated nuisance until, quite by chance, the workers discovered that the substance helped to heal their cuts and burns.
This biological response attracted the attention of Robert Chesebrough, a 22-year-old chemist who was born in London but emigrated to America when the discovery of cheap petroleum fuel meant there was no longer a call for his work, distilling kerosene from whale oil. He visited the Titusville well in 1859, and immediately saw the potential of the remarkable healing wax. Taking numerous samples, he spent the next eleven years subjecting the substance to painstaking refinement and purification. In 1872 he patented the jelly, which he decided to call Vaseline from the words Wasser, the German for water, and elaion, the Greek for oil. To promote his new product he gave dramatic public demonstrations where he would burn his skin, and then immediately sooth the wound by covering it with a layer of Vaseline. When he was ill, he would find relief by covering his body from head to toe with his purified petroleum jelly. In 1883 he was granted a knighthood by Queen Victoria, who praised his invention and pronounced that she ‘used Vaseline every day.’ Chesebrough lived until he was 96, and claimed that his remarkable health and longevity was largely due to his lifetime habit of smothering himself from head to toe in his petroleum jelly whenever he was ill.
There’s no doubt that Vaseline helps to moisturise the skin, by checking the moisture lost by evaporation, which amounts to about 200ml a day. It’s an excellent lip salve, and is known to promote hair growth, which is why it’s commonly applied to women’s eye lashes. But for this purpose it needs to be applied with care, for when unwisely applied petroleum jelly can cause unsightly hirsutism. This was a problem for Marilyn Monroe who covered her face every night with Vaseline, which she
used as a moisturising cream to maintain her youthful complexion. But the lavish use of the jelly over-stimulated her hair follicles, and after her death the forensic records reveal that her face was covered by a light layer of fuzz. Today tubs of Vaseline are sold across the globe at the rate of one every 39 seconds. Most are used as a lip salve, but when they’re employed for this purpose care should be taken to see that they’re not applied to the upper lip. This hazard was brought to the public attention in 2004, when hundreds of American women joined together to launch a class action claiming that the use of the jelly had caused excessive hair growth on their upper lips. The action was dropped, but it’s as well to be aware of the hazard, and it might be appropriate for Unilever, the company now marketing the Chesebrough product, to add an appropriate warning on their Vaseline pots. .