The Flaming Lips claimed it could be used as a spread on toast in their 1993 hit song “She Don’t Use Jelly.”
The miracle product? Good, old-fashioned Vaseline, or more generally, petroleum jelly, which has been around since the 19th century.
Now, this staple of grandma’s medicine cabinet is having a moment on TikTok and Instagram, with teenagers and beauty influencers promoting it as the go-to product for “slugging” — the practice of slathering your skin with the stuff before bedtime to lock in moisture and keep skin hydrated. (The term is meant to evoke the thick, slimy mucus trail a slug might leave behind if it crawled across your skin.)
Over the last year, the number of views of TikTok videos in which influencers mentioned Vaseline increased by 46 percent, according to Traackr, which monitors influencer social media data; on Instagram, the number of videos that mentioned Vaseline jumped 93 percent over the same period. According to Unilever, the multinational consumer-goods company that owns Vaseline, mentions of the product went up by 327 percent on social media during the first week of February, compared with the same week last year.
One influencer, Brooke Paradise, dabbed her lips with Vaseline in a recent video and looked into the camera.
“The girls that get it, get it,” she mouths along with a TikTok-famous sound bite. “The girls that don’t, don’t.”
The newfound popularity of a product that costs as little as $1.79 is amusing and bewildering to longtime Vaseline devotees, many of whom are Black and have childhood memories of parents smearing it on their faces to protect them from the cold and wind.
“I’ve been raising my eyebrows about it for a while now,” Robyn Autry, a sociology professor at Wesleyan University who teaches about racial identity and Blackness, said of the product’s ascendance in certain corners of the internet. In the past two months, she said, she has watched, with incredulity, YouTube videos of white women with dewy skin singing the praises of Vaseline, a product her mother forced on her as a child.
“I remember my mother slathering us,” Professor Autry said. “You’d just have to grin and bear it. Well, not grin, just bear it.”
The origins of a humble jelly
According to Unilever, Robert Chesebrough, a chemist from New York, invented petroleum jelly after a visit to the oil fields of Titusville, Pa., in 1859.
Over the next decade, he figured out how to purify the residue from petroleum processing and convert it into “a thick, oily, pasty substance” that was “semi-solid in appearance, unobjectionable in odor,” according to the patent.
He named it Vaseline. It was pitched as a skin product and a healer of wounds, burns and chafed or dry skin.
“By 1875, Americans were buying Vaseline Petroleum Jelly at the rate of a jar a minute,” according to Unilever. It ran into a marketing problem around the turn of the 20th century when it was advertised as a hair-loss prevention product for men, said David Cadden, professor emeritus of entrepreneurship and strategy at Quinnipiac University.
“Women did not want to have hair on their face,” he said. “This was a great example of one suggested product use sabotaging another use of the product.”
Even today, people worry that spreading it on their face will cause acne or even cancer, because the jelly is derived from crude oil, said Dr. Geeta Yadav, a dermatologist in Toronto.
She tells patients that Vaseline is noncomedogenic, meaning it won’t clog pores. As for the cancer concerns, Dr. Yadav, who uses Vaseline to treat her daughter’s eczema and to coat skin after surgery, said she had never seen a reported case of skin cancer from the use of petroleum jelly.
“I would coat my kids in Vaseline every night when they were babies to retain the moisture in their skin,” Dr. Yadav said.
‘This is all we can afford.’
Professor Autry, the youngest of four children who was born in Detroit and grew up on military bases around the country, said that she dreaded going to school after her mother had covered their faces in Vaseline to protect them from the harsh cold.
“We were kind of teased for it,” she said. “It shows up shinier on darker skin, and I’m a darker-skinned person.”
And, she added, “it was associated with not having a lot, because it didn’t cost a lot.”
Her mother stayed at home to take care of the children, so the family relied on her father’s salary as an Army sergeant, Professor Autry said.
“I always was told, ‘Well, this is all we can afford,’” she said.
Now 40, Professor Autry says she has forgotten about Vaseline, instead spending her money on expensive, luxury skin products.
“Now, I’m thinking, ‘Should I get a jar of Vaseline?’” she said.
Still, Professor Autry said the promotion of it by so many white influencers on social media struck her as problematic.
“It’s almost like they discovered something that poor people, brown people, knew about for a long time but weren’t making videos about,” she said. “Here is another instance of a banal thing that’s almost exoticized.”
Everything old is new again.
Part of the appeal of Vaseline is its low price, said Olivia Markley, 19, a TikTok influencer who studies marketing at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and regularly posts videos about skin care.
“People are trying to up their skin-care game right now,” she said. “Not everyone can afford to drop hundreds of dollars on a skin-care routine.”
Ms. Markley said she was amused by the way some people on social media have treated slugging as something new.
She said she started doing it three years ago when she learned about it on Reddit. But, really, slugging for her began when she was a child and her mother used it to shield her skin from the cold.
Her grandmother, who was born in Thailand, would show her a jar of petroleum jelly with a label written in Thai that she used on her face, Ms. Markley said.
“She’s been using some kind of petroleum product since the 1940s,” she said. “It’s not a new trend. It’s part of a recurring cycle of popularity.”
Ms. Markley compared Vaseline to cleansing balms and cold creams popular in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s that also appear to be finding favor with people on TikTok.
“It’s never gone away,” she said. “It’s just younger generations discovering it.”
Kirsten Noyes contributed research.