What is Shania Twain’s Secret to Soft and Supple Skin?

VaselineAccording to Shania, her secret is “udderly” simple. It has nothing to do with liposomes, pentapeptides, collagen or ceramides. She uses Bag Balm, a product originally developed to keep cow udders from chapping. May not sound very romantic, but it works. Why? Because the basic ingredient is Vaseline which prevents moisture in the skin from evaporating.

Newspapers got all excited when Shania Twain revealed that the secret behind her soft, supple skin wasn’t some complex, highly touted product but a simple concoction that has been around since 1908. It was back then that the small Dairy Association Company in Lyndonville, Vermont decided to take the bull by the horns and tackle the chronic problem of chapped cow udders.

Cow teats do not have an easy life. They are constantly tugged, washed, disinfected and wiped. This leads to moisture loss from the skin which leads to cracking which leads to infections which leads to problems. Enter Bag Balm. Massaging it into udders helps seal in moisture, prevents chapping and reduces infections. The chemistry is pretty simple. Just apply an antiseptic, provide a replacement for the natural skin oils that have been washed away and coat the skin with some substance that prevents further moisture loss. Lanolin, a fatty sheep skin secretion extracted from wool can re-oil the udder and 8-hydroxyquinoline sulfate provides protection against bacteria and fungi. But the real key to Bag Balm’s performance is the moisture barrier, good old Vaseline.

The beneficial properties of Vaseline were already well established when Bag Balm was first formulated, thanks to the ingenuity of the American chemist Robert Chesebrough. In the middle 1800s Chesebrough had built a small business distilling kerosene from coal tar when a problem cropped up. Oil was discovered in Pennsylvania and Chesebrough feared being put out of business. With the philosophy of “if you can’t beat’em, join’em” he traveled to the oil fields to investigate the possibility of producing his kerosene from this new source. One day, while walking through the fields where pumps were busily bringing oil to the surface, his attention was diverted to a waxy material that oozed out of the ground along with petroleum. The oil workers hated the stuff because it gummed up their pumps. Nevertheless, they conceded that this “rod wax,” as they called the annoying substance, did have at least one benefit. It helped heal cuts and burns!

All of a sudden dollar signs began to dance in Chesebrough’s head. After all, hadn’t all kinds of people historically anointed themselves with fats and oils for a variety of reasons? Hadn’t his own grandmother smeared him with goose grease at the first sign of a cold? So for the next ten years Robert Chesebrough devoted his energies to developing a pure, odor free, effective form of “rod wax.” He served as his own guinea pig, cutting his arms, burning his skin, pouring acids on his hands. The results were highly satisfactory, the stuff worked! Chesebrough named his new product Vaseline, supposedly because early experiments were carried out in his wife’s vase. Now he just had to convince the public to buy it. So Chesebrough went out and became the first pharmaceutical industry “detail” man. With a horse and buggy he cruised the streets of Brooklyn giving out free samples. The gimmick worked; orders soon started to flood in. Testimonials abounded.

So when the producers of Bag Balm searched for effective ingredients, “petroleum jelly” was a natural. Cows were grateful. And as it turned out, so were milkmaids. They noticed that their hands no longer chapped and that their skin felt silkier. The word was out. Bag Balm was in. Although the manufacturer has always maintained that Bag Balm is for veterinary use only, there’s no doubt that over the years many jars were purchased by human enthusiasts. Just a small word of warning though to people wanting to follow in Shania’s footsteps: Lanolin can cause skin reactions in some users.

There is still more. Petrolatum can fix a squeaky wheel, keep razor blades from rusting or soften a baseball glove. It can even help prisoners escape from jail. Two ingenious criminals in a small US jail lubricated themselves with Vaseline and slithered through the bars. Is there any downside to this miraculous substance? Well, it does tend to feel a little greasy on the skin. Furthermore, people with oily skin have to take care because Vaseline can gum up hair follicles and cause skin eruptions. Other than that, the stuff is completely safe. Why, it can even be eaten. Chesebrough ate a spoonful of his product every day and he lived to the ripe old age of ninety six.

 

Joe Schwarcz

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