You might be surprised to find out that some of the posts on this site are literally a result of me seeing or hearing something random in a day, googling it, reading the wikipedia article and deciding that it’s interesting enough that I think it’s worth sharing.
Today was one of those days. I was surprised by how interesting the story behind petroleum jelly (aka Vaseline) is! From WikiPedia:
The raw material for petroleum jelly was discovered in 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania, United States, on some of the country’s first oil rigs. Workers disliked the paraffin-like material forming on rigs because it caused them to malfunction, but they used it on cuts and burns because it hastened healing.
Robert Chesebrough, a young chemist whose previous work of distilling fuel from the oil of sperm whales had been rendered obsolete by petroleum, went to Titusville to see what new materials had commercial potential. Chesebrough took the unrefined black “rod wax”, as the drillers called it, back to his laboratory to refine it and explore potential uses. Chesebrough discovered that by distilling the lighter, thinner oil products from the rod wax, he could create a light-colored gel. Chesebrough patented the process of making petroleum jelly by U.S. Patent 127,568 in 1872.
Chesebrough traveled around New York demonstrating the product to encourage sales by burning his skin with acid or an open flame, then spreading the ointment on his injuries and showing his past injuries healed, he claimed, by his miracle product. He opened his first factory in 1870 in Brooklyn using the name Vaseline.
See, part of why I googled it is because I wondered if it was made from petroleum. It’s in the name afterall. This guy really went to bat for his product, willfully burning himself to prove his healing agent worked.
Petroleum jelly is a mixture of hydrocarbons, having a melting point usually within a few degrees of human body temperature, which is approximately 37 °C (99 °F). It is flammable only when heated to liquid, then the fumes will light, not the liquid itself, so a wick material like leaves, bark, or small twigs is needed to ignite petroleum jelly. It is colorless, or of a pale yellow color (when not highly distilled), translucent, and devoid of taste and smell when pure. It does not oxidize on exposure to the air and is not readily acted on by chemical reagents. It is insoluble in water. It is soluble in dichloromethane, chloroform, benzene, diethyl ether, carbon disulfide and oil of turpentine.
Because they feel similar when applied to human skin, there is a common misconception that petroleum jelly and glycerol (glycerine) are physically similar. While petroleum jelly is a non-polar hydrocarbon hydrophobic (water-repelling) and insoluble in water, glycerol (not a hydrocarbon but an alcohol) is the opposite: it is so strongly hydrophilic (water-attracting) that by continuously absorbing moisture from the air it produces the feeling of wetness on the skin, similar to the greasiness produced by petroleum jelly.
There are not many phrases that I love more than “common misconception”. It’s like a beacon for my eyes and brain. “I’m about to learn something!”. Also, the article lays some science on you. Glycerine sucks moisture out of the air and condenses it on your skin? That’s cool.
So today we learned where petroleum jelly came from and how it works. For more on the other uses, head over to wikipedia. This was just the parts I found most interesting.