Petroleum jelly has been a household standard ever since it hit the global market back in 1872 under the brand name “Vaseline.” But, does vaseline ever expire?
Technically, yes Vaseline does expire, Vaseline is sold with a “best by date” of about 3 years, which means it does expire according to the manufacturer.
But, when stored properly, petroleum jelly degrades very slowly, and it doesn’t necessarily become dangerous – just less effective.
To help you decide if it’s finally time to throw out that jar of vaseline that you’ve had for the last few years, here’s everything you need to know about vaseline and whether or not it expires.
What Is Vaseline?
Vaseline is a brand name for petroleum jelly. It’s made by the company Unilever, but there are plenty of other generic petroleum jellies out there that do the exact same thing for (usually) less money.
Petroleum jelly (a.k.a. soft paraffin or petrolatum) is a mixture of different hydrocarbons, mineral oils, and waxes that create a jelly-like semi-solid substance.
Interestingly, the raw materials that were later used to create petroleum jelly were actually discovered by workers at some of the US’s very first oil rigs back in the 1850s. These workers found that they could put this paraffin-esque substance on their cuts and burns to speed up the healing process.
Soon enough, a young chemist by the name of Robert Chesebrough found that he could refine this raw material to make a light-colored gel, which could be used for medical purposes. Thus, we have vaseline.
What Does Vaseline Do?
Over the nearly century and a half that Vaseline has been available, people have come up with quite a few different uses for petroleum jelly.
vaseline is still used for the same purposes and a whole lot more. Some of the top uses for Vaseline include:
- For treating chapped hands and chapped lips
- Reducing chafing on long runs and bike rides
- As a good treatment for diaper rash.
- Healing of minor cuts and scrapes
- Soothing sunburn
- Coating machinery
- Using as grease on squeaky hinges
- Lubricating zippers on old clothing
- Removing make-up
- For pets- treating cracked pads on paws, minor open sores, insect bites and as a hairball treatments for cats
- As accelerant for tinder
- Insect control- crawling insects will get stuck in a smear of Vaseline
Most of us would assume that something as versatile as petroleum jelly would have a super-powered active ingredient that can do everything from cleaning surfaces to helping our cats with their hairballs.
However, the most amazing part about Vaseline is that it doesn’t really have an active ingredient. Its main ingredient – petroleum – gives it all of its lubricating and moisturizing properties.
Does Vaseline Petroleum Jelly Ever Expire?
Since vaseline doesn’t have an active ingredient, per se, it doesn’t really expire. A large jar sure looks like a lifetime supply, but will it last indefinitely in your medicine cabinet?
Sure, the hydrocarbons within petroleum jelly will certainly degrade over time, but this isn’t going to happen overnight.
So long as you keep your jar of vaseline at or below room temperature and out of direct sunlight, it can last for quite a long time (5-10 years) without really losing its effectiveness.
That being said, Unilever (the company that makes Vaseline) recommends a 3 year shelf life in ideal storage conditions.
If vaseline doesn’t really expire, though, then why does it have an expiration date? Technically pure petroleum jelly doesn’t have to have an expiration date, though some manufacturers choose to include one on their packaging.
According to the FDA, many personal care products, such as vaseline, are regulated as cosmetics, which means that they aren’t required by law to have an expiry date. However, since all manufacturers are required to ensure safety in their products, some include expiration dates as a safeguard, just in case.
It’s worth noting that some Vaseline products (such as some of their healing lotions) are considered both a cosmetic and a drug under FDA regulations. In these instances, the makers of Vaseline would be required to put an expiration date on their products.
If your tub of petroleum jelly has an expiration date, it’s either because it’s being regulated as a drug or because the manufacturer simply wanted to add a best buy date on their product.
On the other hand, if it doesn’t have an expiration date, then it’s being regulated purely as a cosmetic product.
Can Germs Grow in Vaseline?
Yes. Although sterile when factory sealed, and not a great environment for germs on its own, any type of petroleum jelly can be a breeding ground for bacteria and other microorganisms. This usually results from an accumulation of skin cells, moisture, other detritus and of course germs that rub off of your fingers.
Though this can occur with newer or older vaseline alike, an older, heavily used tub is much more likely to e germ-riddled than a new, barely used or freshly opened tub.
Now to be clear any germs, even anaerobic ones, that are occupying your tub of vaseline won’t have much to live on; there isn’t anything in vaseline that they can use for nutrition.
All they have to derive nourishment from is what else made it into the tub with them, e.g., your skin cells, oils or anything else that has fallen in.
So though germs might definitely accumulate in vaseline, when left alone they will usually run out of food and die in fairly short order.
What Does Old or Expired Vaseline Look Like?
As mentioned, vaseline and all pure petroleum jellies break down very, very slowly. But it can happen!
Old or expired vaseline will usually appear discolored, have an odd texture or an “off” odor. If you notice anything like that about your, it’s probably time to toss it.
How Should You Store Vaseline?
Vaseline is easy to store for the long haul. Simply keep it in a tightly sealed container at or below room temp, and preferably in the dark. Anywhere from 75° to 50° Fahrenheit is fine.
What Happens If You Use Old Vaseline?
Unless your vaseline is over a decade old, and so long as it’s been stored properly, it’s unlikely to cause any real issues. This is because, as I’ve mentioned, vaseline doesn’t really have an active ingredient and it simply becomes less effective over time.
Does that mean you should go ahead and use that 25 year old vaseline and smear it all over your cracked, dry skin? Probably not, especially if it’s been open for quite some time.
While it may not technically be expired, opened jars of vaseline can become veritable petri dishes for microorganisms. Every time you dip your fingers into a tub of vaseline, you add bacteria and fungi that can proliferate and cause an infection if it gets into your skin.
If you’re just trying to lubricate a creaky door or an annoyingly squeaky office chair, however, using old Vaseline probably isn’t going to cause any problems. While it may be less effective as it ages, old petroleum jelly isn’t exactly harmful to inanimate objects.
Also, while Vaseline brand petroleum jelly is made with 100% petroleum jelly, some generic brands are not.
In these situations, you’ll want to be even more conservative about whether you choose to use an old jar. This is because other ingredients used in generic petroleum jellies break down differently, and could cause health problems down the line.
When in doubt, always read the label. If there’s anything in your petroleum jelly besides “100% petroleum jelly,” then it’s best to play it safe, and follow the expiration date.
Additionally, if you notice that your petroleum jelly has changed color or has a new, funky smell that you never noticed before, it’s probably time to get a new jar.
Does Vaseline expire? Yes, and no. It is often sold with a best by date of 3 years, but, when stored unopened in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight, it can usually last much longer.
If it smells funky or has a weird color to it, it’s probably time to throw your Vaseline out. If you plan to use petroleum jelly as a moisturizer, it’s best to be conservative and replace your jar every few years.
For other, non-topical purposes, feel free to use Vaseline for as long as you want, just recognize that it might become less effective over time.
Gabrielle is a professional outdoor educator, mountain guide, and survival expert with a passion for helping others be prepared for whatever might come their way. She is a polar guide in the Arctic region and is an experienced wilderness medicine instructor/EMT.