Vaseline Petroleum Jelly dates back over 140 years. The Vaseline patent was issued in 1872 to British chemist, Robert Chesebrough. He had traveled to Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859 to check out the newly discovered oil fields. He observed a byproduct of the oil drilling process being used by the roughnecks to heal their skin irritations. He went on to purify this greasy goo. It is best known today as a skin moisturizer. We ignited a controversy over a decade ago when we advised readers not to use petroleum jelly in their nostrils.
The Beginning of the Petroleum Jelly War:
It all started because a reader of our syndicated newspaper column wanted to know if Vicks VapoRub was safe to put in the nose:
January 5, 2004
“I’ve been plagued with post-nasal drip for decades. I also have a deviated septum that can make my breathing labored at night. I notice this especially when I’ve cleaned during the day. In the morning I have to clear my throat repeatedly for about 45 minutes because of the post-nasal drip upon rising.
“Two weeks ago I decided to put a thin film of Vicks VapoRub up my nostrils before bed so I wouldn’t have to wake up. Voila! No more labored breathing and no more post-nasal drip and raspy throat the next morning. Am I just imagining that Vicks helps? Is it harmful to put Vicks up my nose every night?”
We responded to this question:
A. Although it was once common practice to put a dab of Vicks inside the nostrils, the manufacturer of Vicks VapoRub is now quite specific in its warnings:
“For external use only…Do not use by mouth or in nostrils.”
That is partly because one ingredient, camphor, can be toxic if absorbed into the body.
The Battle Begins:
An “inactive” ingredient in Vicks VapoRub is petrolatum. It wasn’t long before we were taken to task by readers.
Here is just one example:
“I am 71 years old and have been using Vicks in my nostrils at bedtime to ease breathing since my mother taught me from childhood. She lived to a ripe old age doing the same thing. Regardless of your warning, I am not about to stop now.”
A few weeks later a physician chimed in and also straightened us out.
According to him we were barking up the wrong tree with our concern about camphor.
“You recently told readers not to put Vicks VapoRub in the nose. You suggested that camphor, an ingredient in Vicks, might be the problem.
“As a pulmonary physician, I can explain the real reason there is a warning against putting Vicks VapoRub in the nostrils. It is not the camphor, but the petrolatum. Petroleum jelly or mineral oil can cause a chronic form of pneumonia when aspirated into the lungs.
“Most people inhale minute quantities of their nasal secretions, especially during sleep. Over time, the oil components of VapoRub or petroleum jelly can’t be cleared from the lungs. This can lead to cough, shortness of breath and reduced lung capacity.
“There are no effective treatment options for this type of pneumonia, so it is never advisable to place any oil-containing substances into the nostrils. Saline nasal spray is a much safer option for keeping the nostrils moist.”
Vicks vs. Vaseline Petroleum Jelly:
You may be wondering what Vicks VapoRub has to do with Vaseline Petroleum Jelly. It’s the petrolatum, aka petroleum jelly. Here is just the latest question in this ongoing saga:
Q. My ear, nose and throat specialist told me not to use Vicks VapoRub in my nose when it is dry. He said that Vaseline would be fine for moisturizing, though.
I have been applying Vaseline in my nostrils almost nightly for five years. The only symptom I’ve had is a little coughing. Should I worry about this?
A. Yes. Even though your ENT doctor endorsed it, Vaseline Petroleum Jelly should not be used inside the nostrils. Inhaling small particles of petroleum jelly can result in chemical pneumonitis.
Another reader shared his story:
“Never ever use Vaseline or anything oily inside your nose. This practice could be life threatening.
“The oil goes to your lungs and they have no way to get rid of it. After my dentist accidentally damaged my trigeminal nerve, I ended up with burning mouth syndrome and a terribly dry nose. I started using Vaseline in the nose to be able to sleep at night.
“Now I have developed an incurable lung disease as a result. If you read the label, it says ‘external use only.’ Inside the nose is not external use. That is my bad.
“I hope this will help someone avoid the same fate. Not being able to breathe is the worst thing that can happen to anyone. Believe me, I know.”
Doctors vs. Doctors:
We have been amazed at how emotional the battle of Vicks VapoRub and Vaseline Petroleum Jelly in the nose has become. In this article a dermatologist disagrees with an asthma specialist.
Share your own thoughts about petroleum jelly in the nose in the comment section below. We agree with the first pulmonary specialist that saline spray is a much safer option, but we want to hear from you as well.