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 well 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.”
A Reader Agrees that Vaseline Petroleum Jelly Does NOT Belong in the Nose:
“Vaseline in the nose is commonly used for a dry nose. But please never, never use petroleum jelly (petrolatum) or anything oily inside your nose. Putting Vaseline in the nose could be life-threatening, as the oil can get into your lungs, and you can’t remove it.
“My dentist accidentally damaged the trigeminal nerve in my mouth, and I developed burning mouth syndrome with dry mouth, nose and eyes. I used Vaseline in my nose every night for more than seven years to help me sleep without the discomfort of a very dry nose. Unfortunately, I developed an incurable lung disease due to the petrolatum. I read the label. It said: “external use only.” Inside the nose is not external, so that was my bad.
“I hope my story can help someone using it now to stop before they suffer serious damage. Not being able to breathe well is the worst thing that can happen to anyone, believe me.”
A. You are not the first reader to caution against putting petroleum jelly in the nose. An article in the journal Chest (Dec. 2019) describes a case somewhat like yours. The authors note that:
“…nasal application of oil-based products (such as petroleum jelly) for the treatment of rhinopharyngeal dryness” can lead to aspiration and lipoid pneumonia.
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 another 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.
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. This reader suggests a different kind of saline product:
“I have used a wonderful product for years, called Ayr Saline Nasal Gel. It keeps the nose from getting dry. I put a small amount on a cotton swab and VERY gently coat the inside of the nose. It also stops my constant runny nose for a while.”
Personal Care Products for Dry Nose:
We know it seems a bit odd, but readers have been telling us that water-based personal care products are a surprisingly effective alternative to Vaseline Petroleum Jelly. You can read about K-Y Jelly in the nose at this link.
If your nose is dry, what about your lips? We’ll bet your lips are almost as dry as your nostrils. Why not take advantage of our Almost End of Winter Sale! Get 25% off our Berry Lip Balm Half Dozen or our Pomegranate Lip Care Half Dozen. This reader says it all:
“A lip balm that works!
“This is the only lip balm that works for me! I tried every brand the drugstore offered, but most just made my lips more cracked and dry. I use it all year and I keep a tube in handy locations: by my bed, in my pocket, in my car, etc. Thanks for restocking it!”
Reader Comments Please:
We want to hear from you. What do you do for dry nostrils? Share your solutions in the comment section below.