Experts Agree Slugging Is the Trendy Skincare Trick That Is Actually Good (for Most)
Glazed doughnut faces, unite!
Perhaps resembling a slug is not a traditional marker of beauty, but among today’s skincare obsessives, getting into bed with your face shiny as a slimy mollusk is a testament to the attention many people are giving their skin’s health and hydration.
“Slugging” is a “K-Beauty”—short for Korean beauty—term for slathering the face every night in Vaseline or another petroleum jelly-based product, such as Aquaphor. It’s the evening skincare step that, ideally, leads to another K-Beauty term, “glass skin,” in which the skin is so luminous and clear, it resembles glass.
Despite its unsettling terminology, experts say that “slugging” can be a great way to wrap up your nightly skincare regimen. And though you may not end up with skin that looks like a freshly Windexed plate of glass, it has a bevy of other benefits.
A Very Brief History of Slugging
Vaseline and other petroleum jelly (also called “petrolatum”) products have been used in skincare for over a century. “We have been recommending it in dermatology for a long time, but it has just caught on more recently, I would say because of TikTok,” says Christina Boull, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. When an American chemist named Robert Augustus Chesebrough observed oil workers coating their burns and other wounds in the neutral-colored jelly, he capitalized on their ingenuity and created Vaseline in 1872. Vaseline and other petroleum jelly products became popular in the ensuing decades because they were cheap, easy to make, and simple to use.
Why Should You Slug?
Stacey Sheridan, a reporter in Chicago, says she’s been using Vaseline (available at Walgreens) on her face since she was in junior high. “I was watching America’s Next Top Model and Tyra Banks said her mom put it on every night and had no wrinkles,” she says. “But now that I live in Chicago, with its unrelenting winters, I find it works in keeping my poor face, abused by low humidity and cold winds, hydrated."
Will Petroleum Jelly Clog Your Pores?
I grew up convinced that any moisturizer not labeled “oil free” would clog the hell out of my pores; thankfully, if the slugging trend on TikTok is any indication, kids these days are not afraid of a little moisture in their skincare.
And they shouldn’t be! “For a long time people thought petrolatum was comedogenic—that is, it causes skin to clog up,” says Michelle Wong, a cosmetic chemist and science educator based in Sydney, Australia. “This was based on some studies on rabbit ears, where scientists applied petrolatum to them and counted clogged pores.” But the study was faulty, she says: Rabbit ears are more sensitive than human skin and have larger pores that appeared clogged to the researchers. But the damage was done. “This was eventually corrected in the mid-90s, when petrolatum was tested on human skin and found not to clog pores. But by then petrolatum’s reputation for pore-clogging was already established.”
There are particular situations in which the heavy occlusivity of petroleum jelly products may do more harm than good. If you’re using other especially strong, “active” skincare products before your moisturizer (for example, a retinoid), petrolatum can “seal it in”—which in theory sounds like a great idea, but for folks with sensitive skin, the increased contact between your skin and the active ingredient can cause irritation. This irritation, says Wong, can lead to breakouts. “So in a roundabout way, petrolatum can sometimes end up clogging pores, even if it isn’t comedogenic on its own,” she says.
You also definitely don’t want to slug if you have any skin infections, says Boull. “If you have impetigo, other bacterial infections of the skin, fungal infections of the skin—those would be times when you would want to steer clear of petrolatum, just until that infection got treated,” she says. I asked her if that meant I shouldn’t use it on the poison ivy I for some reason get every summer. “It certainly wouldn’t do much good, but it wouldn’t hurt, either,” she says, provided that I had thoroughly cleaned it before application. In that situation, she says, I should probably stick with a topical steroid for best results.
Other Uses for Petroleum Jelly
Those with eczema may find particular relief if they add petroleum jelly to their regimen. “Eczema is the number one skin disease that we use to treat with petrolatum,” says Boull. Parents commonly use it on their babies to treat dry skin and eczema. “Babies do slugging from head to toe, twice a day. And that’s like the best regimen,” she says. “So I think it’s kind of ironic that adult women are now just discovering this thing that we’ve been doing [with] babies forever.”
As evidenced by its original use among oil workers in the 19th century, petroleum jelly is great for healing wounds and broken skin. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends applying petroleum jelly to minor wounds like cuts and scrapes to promote healing and prevent scarring.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends it for diaper rash, if that’s something you (or your baby) struggle with; to prevent chafing, a sadly common summer affliction for those who like to be active in summer; and to rehydrate the nails between manicures, a tip I’d desperately wish I’d known after six months of dip powder manicures left my nails so thin and brittle they may as well have not existed at all.
Is Petroleum Jelly Toxic?
Among some “clean beauty” influencers and brands, petrolatum products are regarded as a category to avoid. This fear has emerged because petrolatum is derived from crude oil, which, in all fairness, sounds scary. But in most of the world, including the United States, petrolatum goes through a very thorough refining process that, in fact, makes it one of the safest products you can use on your skin. “Cosmetic-based petrolatum is very refined and not carcinogenic. It doesn’t actually get absorbed into the skin,” Boull says. “It’s just kind of a large molecule that sits on the surface and is not dangerous to use.” The downside to petroleum jelly simply sitting on your skin is, of course, the slug factor: you might look somewhat greasy if you use it, especially if you throw on a thick layer. And because it doesn’t sink into your skin the way other products do, it doesn’t add anything to your skin that isn’t already there. It just seals in the good stuff and keeps the bad stuff out.
Its large molecular size is one reason why it’s great for people with sensitive skin (provided they aren’t using any potentially irritating skincare actives like retinoids). “Petrolatum is non-allergenic and usually well tolerated (albeit a bit messy),” says Adelaide Hebert, a professor of dermatology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. However, if you have rosacea, petroleum jelly may temporarily cause skin redness because it traps heat, says Boull. The redness will fade when you wash off the petrolatum, but for this reason, those with rosacea may want to avoid using it during the day.
How Do You Slug?
It’s easy! Wash your face with a gentle, thorough cleanser—Hebert recommends one that doesn’t lather, as that will be less drying than one that gets super foamy—and pat dry, letting a little bit of moisture remain on the face. Then apply the petroleum jelly or petrolatum-based product such as Aquaphor or Cerave Healing Ointment. You may be tempted to go for the full slug look, but according to Boull, it isn’t necessary. “Less is more,” she says. “You don’t need a thick layer for the petrolatum to do its work.”
Will Slugging Ruin Your Sheets?
Well—maybe. Some folks I talked to for this piece, who have been sluggers for years, have never noticed any stains on their sheets, but other people mentioned that it can present a problem. “Vaseline can indeed leave oily stains on bed clothing (or on any clothing),” says Hebert.
Richard Handel, a test project leader at Consumer Reports who oversees our laundry testing, says that oily products like Vaseline can definitely cause temporary damage to your bed linens. He recommends laying a sacrificial towel over your pillow to avoid the stained pillowcase altogether. But if you do end up with a stain, he has a few methods you can use to remove it. “Blot the stain first with a paper towel to remove excess oil. Then use baking soda or cornstarch to cover the stain,” he says, and let it sit for an hour. This pulls the stain from the fabric. After an hour, scrub the area with a toothbrush, and repeat the process if necessary. “If there is still a stain, you can use dish detergent and warm water to remove it.” Don’t just throw it in the wash, he says—the spot cleaning is critical to removing the stain, and the oil could transfer to other items in the load. Make absolutely sure the stain is gone from the fabric before putting the item in the washer or dryer.
Clarification: This article, originally published on February 9, 2022, has been updated to remove advice about using petroleum jelly in the nose, as some experts say that practice is unsafe.