Well, Actually is a weekly column by Slate’s Shannon Palus. Each week, she’ll test health and wellness products to help readers figure out what they should try, what they should skip, and why.
In the mid-1800s, on an oil well in Pennsylvania, a worker found a gooey waxlike substance forming on the equipment. It gummed up the drilling rigs, but it felt soothing on chapped skin. A young chemist spotted it, the story goes, and figured out an easy way to distill the stuff from oil, and patented it as Vaseline. It could be an oil for leather, a pomade for hair, or a balm for hands, he wrote.
Today, smears of petroleum jelly or petrolatum—the formal name for that gooey substance—are a staple of the cool-girl makeup brand Glossier. The company launched in 2014 with a skeleton line of goods including a face mist, a foundation, and a small tube of watered-down petrolatum, the Balm Dotcom, branded as a “do-everything skin salve.” The stuff currently comes in six varieties, from a clear scentless original to a glittery fragrant birthday cake (inspired by the zeitgeisty dessert store Milk Bar).
Was this stuff, in its understated Instagrammable packaging, all that different from what shows up on oil rigs? In chalking up Glossier products to mere pretty packaging, had I been missing out? I ordered a three-pack of Balm Dotcom to find out.
The first thing that struck me was just how tiny the tubes are. Each is just half a fluid ounce, around the size of the small chapstick-size tube of Vaseline from the drugstore. But at $12 a pop, or $30 for three, the Glossier version is more than four times the price. I knew the fancy stuff would come at a markup, but I still expected something a little heftier than normal in exchange. Maybe along the lines of Smith’s Rosebud Salve, another luxury petrolatum product that, for $7 and not much more product than the Glossier stuff, is at least sold in a tin. Maybe the flavors would be enticing enough to be worth it. I’d previously tried out a friend’s mint Balm Dotcom, which, while not particularly unique, was certainly pleasant.
For this test, I ordered clear original, red cherry, and coconut (“beachy and untinted”). I opened the cherry tube first and brought a smear to my face. The tip of the balms is round and utilitarian, like a tube of toothpaste, which prompts oozing it onto a fingertip rather than skin itself. I did that, and was greeted with an icky-sweet scent and memories of elementary school–debates about whether eating flavored Lip Smackers was advisable, from a time when having a variety of flavored goos was a form of playground currency. I felt perplexed that in all these years, the cool girls hadn’t moved on to something more sophisticated. Or at least, more subtle. I didn’t find subtlety in the coconut, either, which smelled more like burned coconut to me. I hated both flavors and, after brief trial runs, actively avoided using them on my lips. I turned my attention to the most boring variety: “original.”
Despite its relative plainness, the “key ingredients list” includes the same fancy staples of each of the six Balm Dotcom varieties: beeswax, lanolin, extracts from cupuacu fruit, rice bran, and rosemary. Petrolatum is tucked away under “full ingredients,” which requires a click-through—though, at first on that list, it takes up more space in those little tubes than anything else.
And it should. Petrolatum is known among chemists as a gold-standard occlusive agent, meaning it’s really, really good at keeping moisture in. It’s also helpful in repairing skin. You’d be silly to make a lip balm that wasn’t in large part the same stuff as Vaseline. Regular ol’ ChapStick actually brags about its petrolatum content, boasting under the active-ingredients list that the skin protectant comprises 40 percent of the product. (Incidentally, I got a three-pack of ChapStick at Target during this experiment—for less than $5!—because I’d left the Glossier at home. The main thing I need a lip balm to be is in every one of my coat pockets.)
Balm Dotcom does offer an ingredient that could, given long-term use, help prevent damage and signs of aging, says Gloria Lu, a former cosmetic chemist for L’Oreal: antioxidants. But it’s unclear what amount these are present in, so it’s impossible to figure out if those benefits would be worth paying for. (It also lacks an ingredient that would definitely be good at preventing that same damage: sunscreen.) Luxury brands often tout magical ingredients that could be present in just a sprinkle, says Lu, who co-founded a blog, Chemist Confessions, that aims to demistify such things. “This is our general problem with the skincare industry,” she told me. We don’t know how much of the good bonus ingredients are added, so it’s hard to suss out whether they’re worth paying extra for. When it comes to antioxidants in brands like Glossier, Lu met my question of whether they do have long-term benefits with a long “Uhhhh … ” That is the sound of uncertainty, and we should all carry that in our heads while evaluating marketing claims.
She says she used Aquaphor (also largely petrolatum, antioxidant-containing, and a personal favorite of mine) until she and her co-founder created their own small line of products—think Glossier, but with science—including one called Balm Voyage. At $34 per ounce, it clocks in at a higher price than Balm Dotcom. But you at least get an ingredients list that comes with a full breakdown. (In this case, petrolatum is 48.5 percent, and an extra, Boswellia Serrata extract for calming inflamed skin, is 2.5 percent.) This transparency gives the reader information that would help her to decide if the ingredients are worth the asking price.
I’m still using the Balm Dotcom original flavor, which, after all this research, seems exactly like plain Vaseline to me. That’s fine because, like Vaseline, it works very well. But it’s not worth $12.
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