To the surprise of absolutely no one, I was as obsessed with beauty in high school as I am now. Due to the standard budget restraints of someone working on a TJ Maxx part-time salary, I spent my free time researching cheap beauty hacks. I remember coming across a blog that said Marilyn Monroe’s makeup artist would slather her face in Vaseline every single day. So, what did I do? Little did I know, this trick would take over TikTok and the beauty industry under the name “slugging” just a few years later. (Not saying I was ahead of the trend, but …)
Slugging is one of the only skincare tricks TikTok has actually been right about, as dermatologists and editors alike praise its ability to hydrate and smooth skin. So, if you’re here to ask if it’s all cracked up to be, the answer is yes. But if you’re wondering why slugging is so popular, how it works, and if the ever-debated controversy of using Vaseline—keep scrolling. Glazed donut skin, here you come.
What is Slugging?
“Slugging is a modern skin care term from K-beauty for the time-honored and medically-based dermatology practice of occlusive therapy,” says Dr. Cynthia Bailey, Dermatologist and Founder of Dr. Bailey Skin Care. “Historically, dermatologists have used a number of occlusion methods to treat skin problems using topical occlusive materials including adhesive dressings, plastic wrap; and occlusive ointments, oils, and waxes such as petrolatum (aka Vaseline), mineral oil, and lanolin.” Typically, you’ll see it on TikTok as someone doing their full nighttime skincare routine and ending it with a thick layer of Vaseline or an ointment to lock in all that moisture with an occlusive layer, which they remove in the morning.
Bailey notes that dermatologists have been using occlusion therapy for years to treat skin, especially dry and sensitive skin or while using retinol.
Basically, slugging works because it physically blocks the skin from losing water, or TEWL (trans epidermal water loss.) “TEWL is the process where the skin’s moisture wicks to the top of the skin and is lost into the atmosphere,” Dr. Bailey explained. “The important barrier layer of skin, called the stratum corneum, is composed of keratin protein ‘bricks’ mortared together with lipids (oils, cholesterol, ceramides, etc.).” The oils and ointments we use to slug create a seal that prevents that moisture from leaving our skin.
“Damage to skin’s stratum corneum barrier puts the skin at increased risk for TEWL, resulting in dryness, xerosis with flaking, and irritation that leads to redness, itching, and stinging,” Dr. Bailey says. “As skin loses water, the keratin ‘bricks’ shrink, creating spaces for more water loss. The lipid ‘mortar’ can also be lost due to the use of harsh soap and chemical exposure such as alcohols, solvents, and cleaning solutions.” Think about it this way: That thick layer of ointment is saving your skin from losing moisture over time, while also locking in all the moisture that’s already there. That’s why we see slugging surge in popularity in the dry, winter months as well as in dry climates where moisture is few and far between. “The bottom line is that skin becomes softer, more pliable, less irritated, flakey, and symptomatic.”
Benefits of Slugging
“Slugging is popular because it works,” says Dr. Bailey. While it might feel uncomfortable to slather your face in a thick ointment, the benefits generally far outweigh that feeling, and Dr. Bailey echoed. “Having prescribed occlusion therapy ’ to my patients for years, I can tell you that it has the downside of being messy and not something patients are happy to walk around town with, but is highly effective.”
Slugging hosts an array of benefits for all skin types. Dr. Bailey recommends slugging for patients prone to skin barrier issues such as eczema and psoriasis, as well as those who have over-exfoliated. Slugging helps the skin recover from irritation, but it’s also great for those who are just prone to dry, dehydrated skin because it helps prevent moisture loss.
All this added moisture in your skin can make it appear softer, smoother; reduce flaking, inflammation, and itching; and promote healing for skin issues from chemical peels to a breakout.
How to Slug
The reason slugging is so popular is because it’s so easy. To properly slug, Dr. Bailey recommends doing your full skincare routine (whether it’s three steps or 10) first. The occlusive will lock all of those ingredients into your skin (and protect exfoliants and retinols from drying you out). Then, finish your skincare routine with a thick layer of your occlusive all over your face. I also will sometimes “spot slug,” where I just add Vaseline to the areas of my face that need a little extra moisture or where I’m prone to dry patches and flaking.
Obviously, slugging is a bit messy and can feel uncomfortable the first few times you sleep with it. “I typically recommend that my patients apply the messy ointments and dressings at night, wear PJs and sleep in bed linens that they don’t mind getting greasy,” Dr. Bailey added. Then, wake up and wash off the ointment with tepid water, she suggests.
Depending on your skin type, you can slug a few times a week, as needed, or every single night. Those with dry and sensitive skin probably can benefit from a common slugging practice, whereas someone with oily skin might find that their skin is a little too hydrated. And if your barrier is a little worse for wear, Dr. Bailey suggests clients use occlusion therapy every night until your skin starts to calm down.
What if Slugging Breaks Me Out?
If I had a dollar for every time someone told me they “can’t slug because they’ll break out,” I’d be the rich man my parents want me to marry. Sure, loading your face with a thick, greasy substance seems a little weird, but it’s not as likely as you’d think. If you’re worried you’ll break out, you can still slug, just in moderation, says Dr. Bailey. Start slow, and only use a little bit of product. As you notice your skin isn’t breaking out, you can start adding more. As stated above, I’m a big fan of the “spot slug”—and it’s exactly how I discovered that my sensitive, acne-prone skin freakin’ loves Vaseline.
When using a really thick substance, like Vaseline, some people might experience occlusion folliculitis, in which hair follicles and pores get blocked, resulting in irritation that resembles a pimple. To avoid this, Dr. Bailey says to apply your ointment in the direction of the hair follicles to reduce clogging, as well as cutting your greasy, oily substance with something less emollient, like a gel-cream or light serum.
Can You Use Vaseline to Slug?
When you see people slugging on the Internet, they’re most likely using Vaseline—and that’s not without controversy. “Petrolatum/Vaseline is the classic, affordable and hypoallergenic occlusive ointment that is well tolerated—and going viral,” added Dr. Bailey. Dermatologists, including Dr. Bailey, say it’s safe to use on skin because it’s non-comedogenic, meaning it won’t clog pores (unlike coconut oil, an ingredient a lot of amateurs will recommend for slugging that dermatologists—and myself—utterly cringe at).
However, petrolatum may well even be your best bet for slugging. “At a concentration of 5 percent or more, [petrolatum] decreases TEWL by up to 98 percent,” says Dr. Bailey. “Other occlusives studies rank right below this including lanolin (secreted from the oil glands of sheep and a known acne-causing ingredient), mineral oil, and silicones,” noting these are only shown to reduce TEWL by 20-30 percent comparably.
Many people are afraid to use Vaseline over sustainability, as petrolatum is a byproduct of crude oil drilling. Always make decisions for yourself and do your own research. Our team feels safe using Vaseline because it’s a byproduct that would be thrown out anyway, and it’s one of many products on the market that come out of oil drilling. Is it the most sustainable skincare product out there? Definitely not. Nothing that comes in plastic packaging could be. But if you’re singling out Vaseline, you should check the labels of a lot of your beauty products if they contain mineral oil or other oil derivatives (heck, even the ultra-expensive La Mer cream boasts mineral oil as its second ingredient). Your nighttime beauty routine alone won’t tank fossil fuels, so our team feels comfortable using an affordable, accessible product that’s been around for centuries.
If you don’t want to use Vaseline, you have options. Dr. Bailey recommended jojoba oil, noting that it’s “technically a wax and very similar to human sebum,” but any ointment, oil, or wax can be used as an occlusive layer as the last step of your skincare routine.
This is what you'll see people slug with most often, and it's #1 in our book. At less than $5, you can't argue with the price or efficacy.
This will run you a little more than your standard tub of Vaseline, but the added ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and panthenol make it a good choice for some even deeper hydration.
Made with a handful of botanical oils, Dr. Bailey's namesake skincare line launched this occlusive oil as a final step in your routine or to add to your moisturizer.
Dr. Bailey said she routinely uses this to prevent dry, chapped hands and says it's especially effective for eczema, thanks to the lanolin. She recommends applying this all over your hands and then covering them with cotton gloves to seal in all that moisture (and avoid getting ointment all over everything you touch).