What is “slugging” and is it safe for the skin?

By Lisa Marie Basile | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published March 23, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Slugging is a skincare trend that has been popularized on social media. It emphasizes covering the skin in an occlusive moisturizer like petroleum jelly (PJ) before bed.

  • PJ can replenish, protect, and moisturize the skin. Dermatologists see it as mostly safe and effective.

  • PJ use may not be beneficial for people with acne. It’s not recommended to use AHAs or retinoids underneath PJ.

Beauty enthusiasts and skincare influencers across social media platforms have been singing praises for a skincare trend called “slugging.” You may have even seen other healthcare practitioners making viral educational videos about the trend.[]

So, what is it? “Slugging basically means applying an occlusive emollient to repair the barrier function of your skin with the goal to replenish, protect, and moisturize,” says Dr. Susan Massick, a board-certified dermatologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Occlusives act as protective barriers on the skin, sealing in moisture.

The practice very commonly employs the use of petroleum jelly (PJ), or CeraVe, which also contains PJ as a main ingredient, and is done before bed as the last step in a skincare routine. The goal is to sleep with the face covered in an occlusive.

Slugging has roots in South Korea, whose beauty practices gained global prominence due to their innovative, aesthetic products and trends.[] The moniker “slugging” may refer to the mucus trail that snails and slugs leave behind as they move.[] PJ, after all, is very slimy and thick. 

Slugging offers plenty of benefits There are some real potential benefits to this trend, says Massick. “As a dermatologist, I definitely recommend moisturizing the skin, especially if it’s frequently dry or easily irritated,” she says.

PJ, Massick explains, boasts a few other undeniable benefits. “PJ is a highly effective moisturizer. [It’s] a great price point that won't break the bank, and it’s accessible. It’s fragrance-free without additives, scents, or perfumes, and it’s gentle—not abrasive, not irritating, [and doesn’t] sting.”

While PJ is useful in skincare in general, it also may help patients with nonlesional atopic dermatitis. One clinical trial found it “induced expression of key barrier differentiation markers (filaggrin and loricrin), increased stratum corneum thickness, and significantly reduced T-cell infiltrates.”[]

In a small study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, researchers tested PJ’s ability to suppress water evaporation from the surface of the skin—and compared it to a petroleum-based ointment, NOV® II Moisture Balm, which was designed to be less sticky than PJ.[] 

The study—which focused on skin conditions erythema, crusting, dryness, and itch—found that dryness, crusting, and transepidermal water loss decreased significantly with both the PJ and the NOV® II Moisture Balm sides. Stratum corneum water content, along with free amino acid levels in the stratum corneum, increased significantly. 

That said, researchers found that use of NOV II Moisture Balm led to significant decreases in erythema and thymic stromal lymphopoietin (which is a proinflammatory mediator linked to inflammatory conditions as well as skincare issues like atopic dermatitis.) The results found that both products were equivalent. The only downside here? PJ offers less usability, as it’s sticky and hard to spread.[]

Risks associated with slugging

According to a study published in Clinics in Dermatology, the occlusive nature of slugging could cause acne while also increasing the potency of topical medications applied to the skin. Massick agrees. “[PJ] may exacerbate acne if you tend to have oily skin,” Massick says. The American Academy of Dermatology Association echoes this sentiment.[] 

For patients who are using topical medications, occlusive moisturizers can “enhance penetration of the active drug and improve efficacy,” according to Pharmaceutics. Patients should also be warned to wait 15 minutes before applying moisturizing products (like PJ) right after applying topical steroids. 

The same goes for certain other skincare products. “If you are using acids or retinoids, applying an occlusive after can potentiate the effects and cause irritation,” adds Reshmi Kapoor, MD FAAD of Brooklyn Dermatology.  If your patients have skincare questions about slugging that you’re not qualified to answer, Massick recommends referring them to a board-certified dermatologist, especially if they have acne or use certain skincare products.

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