Vaseline is a brand with which most people are familiar and although they produce a range of products, their “jelly” is the one most commonly connected to the trademarked name. Vaseline was “discovered” (according to the official Vaseline website) way back in 1859 by Robert Chesebrough, meaning its roots stretch back more than 150 years. Extensive history aside though, let’s cut to the chase: is Vaseline vegan and are their other products vegan friendly?
Well, most vegans would agree that Vaseline is indeed vegan. However, as with so many of the items and products we look at in the Is It Vegan? area of our site, there is at least a little ambiguity. We will look at what Vaseline is and why it is generally considered to be vegan. We will then look at what makes the water a little muddier, and we’ll examine some of the other main products produced by the brand.
Last of all, we will look at some alternatives to the core product that may be more suitable for vegans wanting an irrefutably vegan, cruelty free, sustainable and ethical alternative to Vaseline. That’s a lot to go at, so let’s get started!
What Is Vaseline?
Vaseline may have been first made way back in the mid-19th century but it is now part of the Anglo-Dutch giant Unilever. This mammoth multinational owns a massive range of consumer goods brands, including Dove, Lynx, Knorr, Hellman’s (of mustard fame), Ben & Jerry’s (who now make some delicious vegan ice cream), Surf, and Magnum, to name just a few.
Returning to the past, Vaseline was invented (or discovered, take your pick), in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Unless you have an excellent working knowledge of the US oil industry, or you are an expert on the history of Vaseline (you might be by the end of this!) then you have probably never heard of Titusville, but it is a small city that is considered to be one of the birthplaces of the American oil industry.
Whilst Chesebrough discovered the substance we now call Vaseline in 1859, the brand itself was not born until a little later, in 1870. Chesebrough heard of a substance that oil workers used to salve burns and cuts, a substance they obtained from cleaning oil pumps and rods. He developed this over time, extracting the pure petroleum jelly, which he began selling, obtaining a patent in the US in 1872 and in the UK five years later. And, so Vaseline was born.
The name is said to be derived from the German word for water, wasser, and the Greek for oil, olion. It was produced for many years by the Chesebrough Manufacturing Company and the formulation and manufacturing process changed little. A number of mergers and takeovers followed and in 1987 the Vaseline brand came under the ownership of Unilever.
What Is Vaseline Made From?
Vaseline is, according to the labelling, “pure petroleum jelly” and the official site states that it “is a blend of mineral oils and waxes”. In their FAQ, in a response to a question about the safety of the product they say:
While derived from petroleum, Vaseline® ensures the safety of its jelly by putting it through a triple purification process. This process removes impurities, resulting in a jelly that is non-irritating and hypo-allergenic.
From all this, we can take that Vaseline was originally produced by filtering a waxy by-product of the oil industry. In modern times, it is still made using oil/petroleum as its base and we also know that there is nothing in the filtration or production process that is obviously non-vegan.
Most People Consider Vaseline to Be Vegan
Whilst oil, from which petrol and related substances are made, was formed from dead marine organisms, these (often microscopic) animals died of natural causes millions of years ago. Usually not even wannabe level five vegans object to the use of such fuels and indeed avoiding them and all the items such petrochemicals are used in is all probably near impossible in the modern world.
Fundamentally, therefore, most vegans are happy to use Vaseline and other generic petroleum jelly products. If we accept that oil and petrol, though far from ideal for those who believe in the environmental reasons for going vegan, are ultimately vegan, then there is seemingly nothing else about Vaseline that would make it non-vegan. Why, then, do some websites argue that Vaseline is not vegan and why do some vegans seek to avoid it, even if they ultimately accept that it is fundamentally vegan friendly?
Why Might Vegans Not Use Vaseline?
With some products, getting a 100% clear-cut answer as to whether they are vegan or not is not always easy. People have different ideas as to the bar that has to be met. Whilst there is an “official” definition of veganism as put forward by the Vegan Society, it is certainly very open to interpretation. In addition, that definition itself is not legally binding, nor universally accepted.
Just about all vegans would accept that a product – be it a food, drink, item of clothing or consumer item such as lip balm – should not include animals or substances derived from animals. The vast majority would agree that such animal-derived items should also not be used in the processing or manufacturing process, which is why some Champagne is not vegan (the same applies to beers, wines, ciders and some other alcoholic drinks too, such as port and sherry). Again, there is a broad agreement that the exploitation or harm of animals is a no-no, as you would expect, whilst animal testing also typically renders a product non-vegan (except in the case of medicines and vaccines, for example, if it is absolutely necessary).
However, there are many grey areas. For example, if a certain ingredient has been tested many years ago on animals, does that mean that any product made with it in the future should be deemed non-vegan? Or if a certain company has tested their products on animals in the past, or even still does for some of its items, does that mean that everything they ever make is non-vegan?
And, what about companies who make some “vegan” products but also, for example, produce real beef burgers? Then there are the issues of cross-contamination and the debate as to whether or not oysters are vegan, to name just two more of the areas where some degree of personal discretion must be used. In short, there are few definitive answers here.
Is Vaseline Tested on Animals?
In the light of what we have said above, let us now look again at Vaseline. The easiest place to start is with the issue of animal testing. We cannot be sure whether or not historic testing took place in the 19th century. However, given the oil workers were using the base wax before Vaseline itself was invented, that it is not a medical grade item, and that safety requirements were less stringent back then, we suspect it was not.
What we do know for sure is that Unilever is a giant multinational conglomerate and that they produce many non-vegan items, have historically carried out animal trials and that some of their products are tested on animals, though not directly by Unilever. The business has a clear position on animal testing and they state the following:
We do not test our products on animals and are committed to ending animal testing … a growing number of our brands ensure that their products and ingredients are not subject to animal testing by Unilever, by our suppliers, or by regulatory authorities … We are recognised by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) as a ‘company working for regulatory change.
Clearly, that all sounds very promising but their statement also includes the following information:
Occasionally, across Unilever’s broader portfolio of brands, ingredients that we use still have to be tested by suppliers to comply with legal and regulatory requirements in some markets.
Some have taken this statement to mean that Vaseline (or its ingredients) is tested on animals but this is not actually something we can be 100% sure of. Moreover, we would argue that if a third party carries out testing, particularly if it is beyond the control of Unilever/Vaseline (for example on the finished product in order for it to pass specific country-specific regulation), then this does not render Vaseline itself non-vegan.
What Unilever Had to Say
We contacted Unilever directly (in November 2020) and they by and large repeated what is contained in the statements above. They did also say:
We recommend checking the packaging for the most accurate advice of if it is suitable for vegans or contains animal derived ingredients … information is subject to change due to recipe amendments and therefore [that is] why we always recommend [customers] check the product label for the most accurate information.
Most Vaseline packaging we have seen makes no mention of whether or not it is suitable for vegetarians, let alone vegans, so this is of little help. With regards to animal testing in particular, they told us:
Occasionally, when there are no suitable non-animal approaches available, some of the ingredients we use have to be tested; and some governments test our products on animals as part of their regulatory requirements. We are actively working with these governments, other scientists and NGOs, to put in place alternative methods.
As said, this mainly reiterates what their primary public message said but for the reasons mentioned previously, we strongly suspect that there would be no reason to test any of the ingredients in Vaseline on animals.
Ingredients in Vaseline
Whilst Vaseline is typically labelled and marketed as being 100% petroleum jelly, and elsewhere the ingredients are listed solely as “Petrolatum”, the official website states that it is “a blend of mineral oils and waxes”.
Some sites have suggested that this means that there are multiple ingredients in Vaseline and that some of the waxes used to make the super-smooth lubricating balm may not be vegan. Some have even suggested that lanolin (which comes from sheep and finds its way into some breakfast cereals) may be used.
However, there is no evidence of this as far as we are concerned and we suspect that when Vaseline say “mineral oils and waxes” they are referring to a natural blend that comes about from oil processing. That said, this is not something we can be categorically sure of. On balance though, we feel confident that it is highly unlikely that any animal-based substances are in the finished product.
Is Vaseline Filtered with Bone Char?
Another reason that Vaseline could be deemed non-vegan is if the production process used animals. The brand like to talk a lot about their “proprietary triple purification process involving distillation, de-aeration, and filtration” and how this differentiates them from some other similar products. This process may well mean their petroleum jelly is safe, pure and a free of any potentially dangerous chemicals but does the filtration process use bone char (some sugar is not vegan for this same reason)? Bone char is essentially animal bones that have been burned and if this is used by Unilever then Vaseline would not be considered as vegan.
Thanks to the miracle that is the Internet, we can actually view the full patent application from the 19th century that the aforementioned Chesebrough filed. He wrote that: “
My method of making Vaseline is by filtering the aforesaid petroleum residuums through bone-black, according to my process described in my Letters Patent dated August 22, 1865 …
Bone black, or bone-black, is another name for bone char and, so on this basis, the original product made in Titusville would not have been vegan. Much has changed since then though and as well as no longer being made in Pennsylvania (most Vaseline is now made in India), Vaseline no longer uses bone char or bone black or whatever else you want to call it. We have seen a third-party communication with Unilever that confirms this.
Confirmation: “No Animal Derived Ingredients”
However, in the interests of being thorough, we have also contacted them directly to ask: “Can you tell me if the triple filtration process for Vaseline still uses bone char, as per the original patent filed in America in the 1800s!? If it is still filtered in this way that would mean it is non-vegan.” Their response to us in December 2020 was as follows: “I can advise no animal derived ingredients are used in the processing of Vaseline Jelly.” Okay, phew – glad we got that settled.
Another reason that some have questioned whether or not vegans should use Vaseline is because it does not feature on PETA’s list of cruelty-free brands. In addition, Vaseline Intensive Care features on a “buy this not that” PETA article as an item vegans should avoid, whilst none of their products are listed in an article about cruelty-free vegan lip balms.
However, PETA are far from the most reliable source and we have seen many things on their site that are questionable. PETA sometimes (we presume inadvertently) twist the truth or omit certain information, or just, like us all, make mistakes. In addition, they do not – cannot – cover every single brand in the world.
As such, using Vaseline’s omission from PETA’s good books is not at all conclusive proof that their products are not vegan. And of course, it is worth remembering that there is a big difference between vegan and cruelty free.
Are There Sustainability Concerns?
Even if we accept that Vaseline contains no animal ingredients, and does not use any in the manufacturing process, and we are happy to accept that as a brand they do not directly carry out animal testing, might some vegans still have doubts about the product on sustainability grounds? For the many vegans who are especially concerned about environmental issues and veganism, does the fact that Vaseline is made from a petroleum base represent a problem?
Many sites suggest that because Vaseline is derived from a fossil fuel (crude oil) it is, per se, unsustainable and bad for the environment. We feel this is an overly simplistic assessment at best and a crude and possibly disingenuous view at worst. We do not have exact details of the production process of Vaseline and nor do we know exactly how much of the product they make and how much oil is needed to manufacturer this.
More Evidence Needed
However, none of the sites suggesting that it is an environmentally unsound product have this information either. The general consensus seems to be that Vaseline is made from a by-product of the oil industry. If that is the case, then Vaseline is simply making use of what would otherwise be a waste product and they are not necessitating the production of any more oil. Equally, we would suggest that in the scheme of things, the quantity of oil relevant to petroleum jelly (for both Vaseline and other brands) is tiny.
In comparison to the fuel we use to heat our homes, power our vehicles and produce all the other items we consume and use, is Vaseline where we should be focussing our attention? It seems doubtful to us and to others too, with the Guardian’s “Ask Leo & Lucy: Ethical and Green Living” feature responding to a question about this saying, “I must say that I’m a little concerned about how much of these products you apply to yourself that leads you to wonder whether you might be helping to deplete the world’s oil reserves.”
However, if this seems like we are suggesting Unilever’s market-leading hand and body care brand is perfect, or that minor concerns are entirely irrelevant, that is not our intention. What we are saying is that it is worth questioning and thinking about everything you read. Moreover, our key point is that if you are a vegan who uses Vaseline, we see no need for you to stop and no reason to feel bad about it.
That said, whilst in our opinion Vaseline is vegan, that is not to say there are not a huge range of alternative options that might be “more vegan”. By this we mean that they are certified as being both vegan and cruelty free. In addition, such alternatives are generally made by smaller producers which will no doubt appeal to those who would rather support such enterprises, whilst they also typically have better green credentials and are more sustainable. Where can you buy such a wonder product? Well, let us tell you.
Better Vegan Alternatives to Vaseline
Most health food type shops and vegan specialist stores will probably stock some of the following brilliant alternatives to Vaseline, as well as others. This is just a small selection of those available, along with where they can be bought and what the advantages of them are.
|Product||Notes||Where to Buy||Approx. Price|
|Vegaline||Lighter, vegan, organic and cruelty-free, though only available online and quite expensive||Online and direct||£13 for 114g (plus delivery)|
|Natruline by Beauty Kitchen||Widely available, labelled as vegan, 100% natural, petrol-free||TheVeganKind Supermarket, Planet Organic and many small retailers||£2.50 for 20g|
|Eco Lips||Fair trade, vegan, cruelty free, non-GMO balm from the USA||Various online and direct||Approx £3 for lipstick style|
|Hurraw!||Organic (though not 100%), vegan and unprocessed ingredients, smells great and is cruelty free but expensive||TheVeganKind Supermarket and various small and online||£3-£4 for lipstick style (4.3g in this case)|
In addition to the products above, many vegans – and non-vegans – prefer a simpler, less processed solution. There are a huge range of natural plant oils that can be used instead of Vaseline. Depending what you want it for, unrefined coconut oil, shea butter, jojoba oil, extra virgin olive oil, mustard oil and cocoa butter can all be used.
With all the information that we have about Vaseline it is hard to say that it is not vegan. It uses a by-product of oil production as its base and is not processed using non-vegan substances or techniques. The makers of Unilever do not test it or its ingredients on animals and are committed to ending animal testing, something they fully support and campaign for.
That said, Unilever cannot claim to be fully free of animal testing as they admit that for some products (we can’t be sure if this includes Vaseline), their ingredient suppliers occasionally do carry out such tests. In addition, certain governments test Unilever’s products in order for them to be permitted for sale.
Environmentally speaking, we feel it is not something vegans should worry about because it is a by-product of an industry that is all-but impossible to avoid in modern life. Moreover, its impact relative to many other accepted vegan goods is minimal.
All that said, there are lots of other options when it comes to similar products to ease dry skin, salve chapped lips, heal small cuts and wounds, and all the many other things Vaseline can be used for. Such alternatives are often certified as 100% cruelty free for those that have their doubts about Unilever, do not have any connection to the fossil fuel industry and also help support a more diverse, interesting world in which multinationals do not control everything.