Slugging—is This Trend the Answer to Repairing Your Damaged Moisture Barrier?

woman scooping Vaseline out of a jar

Slugging is a new skincare trend you might be seeing all over social media. The trend became popular on Reddit a few years back and is having a resurgence thanks to TikTok. Needless to say, slugging has gone viral as a way to fix dry skin caused by a damaged moisture barrier. But does it really work? Is this the miracle we’ve all been looking for? And, maybe most importantly, is it safe for all skin types?

In this post, I’ll explain everything you need to know about fixing a damaged moisture barrier and give my thoughts on this new slugging trend. (Hint: it does work, but there’s a catch.)

What is Slugging?

Slugging is a popular new skincare trend focused on fixing dry, irritated, or damaged skin. The way slugging works is simple: as the final step in your nighttime routine, apply a generous layer of petroleum jelly (a brand name is Vaseline or you can get generic) to coat your face. This is said to help repair your skin’s moisture barrier, and will most definitely leave your face resembling a shiny slug somewhat! As you can see from the graph below, posts and comments about the slugging trend have only been increasing in volume meaning people are more interested in it than ever:
Graph showing popularity of slugging

What Does the Moisture Barrier Have to Do With All This?

If you’ve read my blog before, chances are you’ve heard me talk about how important the moisture barrier is when it comes to skin health. Your skin’s barrier is made up of lipids that bind your skin cells together. An analogy that’s often used is that of a brick wall: if your skin cells are the bricks, the lipids are the mortar that binds everything together. When this mortar is intact, it keeps good things (moisture) in and bad things (irritants) out. However, if it develops cracks, moisture can escape and irritants can get in.

When we talk about “barrier repair” in skincare, it usually refers to replenishing the lipid content of the stratum corneum (outermost layer of the skin). In other words? Adding more mortar to make sure the wall is sealed up nice and tight.

There are many, many ways your moisture barrier can get damaged, which you can read all about in this post.

Does Slugging Work to Repair a Damaged Barrier?

The answer is yes, but with a few caveats.

First, let me explain how Vaseline and other petrolatum (petroleum) products interact with your skin’s moisture barrier. When your barrier is weak because you don’t have enough lipids in your skin, Vaseline acts as a substitute for these lipids. Remember the brick and mortar analogy? Vaseline fills in the cracks in your skin’s “mortar” so that your barrier and skin start to act in a healthy way again. Vaseline is also a very safe ingredient and is chemically inert, meaning it won’t cause irritation (it’s so safe it’s even recommended for treating eczema in babies).

However, because Vaseline doesn’t contain any lipids of its own, it can’t actually replenish your skin’s lipids. This means that it isn’t a long-term solution to repairing barrier damage, but rather a band-aid to help you deal with the symptoms of a damaged barrier instead of addressing the underlying issue. That said, it acts as a safe way to temporarily keep damaged skin protected from water loss and irritation.

In short, if you have dry, damaged skin and try slugging, you’ll probably see the results you’re looking for: smoother, softer, less irritated, more moist skin. However, once you stop using Vaseline, the underlying issue of a damaged barrier is likely to still be there. While I think this is something you could do once in a while when your skin is really in need of some comfort (like in cold climates), I believe there are way more sophisticated products available these days that can help you repair your barrier long-term.

What Are Some Other Ways to Fix a Damaged Barrier?

So, what are some ways to actually repair your skin’s barrier so that it can’t function properly on its own again? As someone who formulates skincare products, I know there are several ways a product can be made to do this. It’s most effective when you use a product that is left on the skin such as a serum, mask, or moisturizer.

Five ways that a skin’s barrier can be repaired with topical skincare products:

  1. Use niacinamide at approximately 4%. Reapply twice a day for at least 30 days. Continue applying at least a few times a week for the repair to continue and maintain the results.
  2. Use usnic acid (usnea), an extract found in tree moss, to stimulate hydroxyceramide production in the granular layer of the epidermis. This ingredient may also help with wound healing. Apply twice daily for nine days to experience results. Continue using for ongoing results.
  3. Use ceramides, essential fatty acids, and fatty acids twice a day for several days. Continue for ongoing results. These can be found in Phytolipid Comfort Creme or Pure Radiance Creme Masque.
  4. Apply plant oils rich in fatty acids and omegas. When used twice daily, surface roughness is smoothed and the skin feels more comfortable. Both are good signs of barrier repair. These ingredients can be found in Pro Remedy Oil.
  5. Occlusion. This can be done with a thick coating of an occlusive masque or moisturizer and should be applied twice daily. (Slugging is considered to be an occlusion method, however, as you’re reading in this post, it’s not my go-to recommendation.)

Note: You’ll see that I mentioned how often such products and ingredients should be applied but it’s because that is what is ideal for barrier repair. However, you never want to interfere with your daily sunscreen providing the important protection it needs for the skin, so please be mindful of this. Also, as for usnic acid, I haven’t seen any products for the face that use this ingredient, but I know from taking cosmetic chemistry courses that it has barrier benefits so I wanted to mention it.

Learn everything you need to know about repairing your skin’s moisture barrier.

Is Slugging Good for Acne-Prone Skin?

In short, no. Unfortunately, barrier repair can be a dangerous game for those with skin prone to acne and clogged pores. This is because almost all barrier-repair methods, including slugging and the other methods mentioned above, can lead to comedogenicity if continued over a period of time. (I repeat, if continued over a period of time.)

“Comedogenicity” technically refers to how likely a product is to clog your pores (leading to bumps called “closed comedones,” as you can see from the picture in this post). There is no real, industry-standard measurement for comedogenicity and an ingredient can act differently from person to person or formula to formula. This is why I don’t like to say any ingredients are 100 percent “bad” for acne-prone skin. (This is the case with silicones, which have gotten a bad rap for being comedogenic when, in actuality, it’s not that straightforward as you can read in my silicone post.)

It’s important to know that it isn’t the mere presence of an ingredient that makes a product comedogenic. It depends on a lot of factors: the amount of the ingredient being used, the presence of other comedogenic ingredients OR ingredients that enhance comedogenicity within the same formula, and the length and frequency of exposure. All of these things together determine whether or not a product is truly comedogenic and will clog your pores.

When it comes to slugging, you’re using a product with a very high concentration of petrolatum all over your face every day, so the chances of it leading to clogged pores (bumps) are high. Clinique had a really popular moisturizer in the 90s that many of my clients used, and the second ingredient was mineral oil (a derivative of petrolatum). When they came to me with clogged pores and bumps, I’d have them eliminate it and use something lighter and oil-free. In most cases, their skin would improve within a few weeks just by removing that factor. Since I experienced this with clients over and over again, I’ve always been very wary of petrolatum for oily and acne-prone, and bump-prone skin.

Note: If you do want to give slugging a try and your skin is prone to clogged pores, I would highly recommend that you don’t exfoliate the skin prior to applying petroleum jelly. Since exfoliants (facial scrubs, sonic cleansing brushes and acids) all work to remove surface dryness, this could “open” up the pores more allowing for an increased chance of them getting blocked. You could find yourself with bumps on the skin as soon as the next day.

What Type of Product is Best for Barrier Repair if You Have Breakout-Prone Skin?

Well, I don’t have any suggestions but I’m knee-deep in this right now as I’m currently working on a leave-on barrier repair product that WILL be suitable for those prone to clogged pores and breakouts. (TBD on when it will come out but sign up to be notified.)

I believe that plant oils can be safely used periodically rather than continually and provide a great solution for barrier repair in oily skin. This type of skin (like skin types 1-4) can certainly experience a damaged barrier when someone uses topical drying agents or is taking the prescription Accutane or other oral drugs that work by atrophying sebaceous glands. Unfortunately, many ingredients meant to fight acne can also lead to barrier damage. These types of things can also interrupt the keratinocytes’ natural ability to produce intercellular lipids in the proper ratios, thus causing cells to shed and the skin to become ultra-sensitive and reactive.

So, as I’m working on a product that will help repair the barrier for breakout-prone skin, I will probably tap into using plant oils because those seem to be most agreeable. Stay tuned! 

Bottom Line About Slugging

It definitely works as a temporary measure for dry skin types and I know that a lot of dermatologists recommend it, but I wouldn’t suggest permanently substituting petrolatum as your regular moisturizer. However, it’s a really safe, inexpensive ingredient that can give an overall better experience and repair for the skin. It can temporarily relieve the symptoms of a damaged barrier, but won’t fix the underlying issue, so I suggest using it as a stop-gap measure when your skin really needs some extra comfort. 

I actually use petrolatum (the brand Aquaphor) on my feet with socks in the winter —and it works wonders — but it’s definitely not my go-to recommendation for the face. In my line, I have two moisturizers that work well for barrier repair. Phytolipid Comfort Cream is for dry skin types and Skin Recovery Lotion is good for oily, breakout-prone skin types. I mean, look what it did for my nephew’s skin!

When I WOULD Recommend Vaseline (Petrolatum) to Someone

One really good time to use Vaseline or petrolatum on your face is when you’re swimming in a chlorinated pool. Chlorine is super drying to the skin, especially if you use retinoids and your barrier is already being compromised. Because Vaseline is a solid form of oil, it repels water and will protect your skin from chlorine to prevent unnecessary dryness. Petrolatum also has a very low risk of causing an allergic reaction, which makes it great for protecting against irritation. It can also be used on areas of the body that are prone to dryness while swimming. I recommend you wash it off your face as soon as you get out of the pool by using a cleansing lotion to break down the oil.

It could also be used to protect your face in when outdoors in very cold climates, but only at night since you don’t want it interfering with your sunscreen during the day. (I once went dog sledding at night up in Northern Maine and while I didn’t use this, this would be an example of when it could be helpful.)

So there you have it! My take on the popular slugging trend. I hope you found this post helpful. Finally, since slugging for so many people is about getting that “glow,” here are ten ways to give your skin a healthy glow.

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