50 surprising products you use every day that are made from petroleum

You there. Sitting at your laptop in those Lululemon yoga pants and plastic flipflops, wearing your Viva Red lip gloss and sucking on that breath mint.  Did you know that all of those items contain petroleum? Petroleum, in fact, pervades almost every aspect of our lives.

The always-enlightening Meaghan O’Neill writes:

“It’s what we use to power our cars and make machinery go, of course, but it’s also surprisingly omnipresent in thousands of products we use every day. And for women in particular, petroleum and petroleum-derived byproducts are hiding in some pretty sneaky places.”

Although she considers herself pretty “green” (she’s the author of Ready, Set, Green: Eight Weeks to Modern Living) and a highly conscious consumer, O’Neill easily came up with dozens of common household items that are made from petroleum or petroleum byproducts. 

Petroleum in and of itself is not necessarily evil, she reminds us.

“But if we really want to think about how we move toward a brighter green future, we better face the facts: this stuff is in nearly everything we use.  Even if you’re using green beauty products, wearing green clothes, and eating wholesome foods, petroleum is likely lurking somewhere in or around your smart-consumer choices.”

Take a look at her list on Treehugger.com – it may surprise you. Then ask yourself, what’s in my own shampoo/eye shadow/underwear? And could I live without it? Is there a non-petroleum alternative?

The American Petroleum Institute is a powerful lobby group representing more than 400 members of the oil/natural gas industry. The API also funds a website called Classroom Energy! which claims to provide teachers and students with materials on ‘the vital role of oil and natural gas in modern life.’

The API is the producer of a 16-minute video for school students called ‘Fuel-less: You Can’t Be Cool Without Fuel’, (described by some as “a shameless pitch for oil dependence”).

This film starts with the line:

“You’re not going to believe this, but everything – everything! – I have that’s really cool comes from oil!”

Why, you may be wondering, would you want to target school children for consumer messages about petroleum products? An API memo leaked to the media as far back as 1998 may shed some light on the industry’s motivation for targeting schools:

“Informing teachers/students about uncertainties in climate science will begin to erect barriers against further efforts to impose Kyoto-like measures in the future.”

There may be far bigger factors at play here besides a corporate public relations campaign aimed at kids. For example, Laurie David, a producer of the documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, wrote a Washington Post story called Science À La Joe Camel.

It described a 2006 offer to donate 50,000 free DVD copies of the award-winning climate change documentary to the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) for educators to use in their classrooms.

“It seemed like a no-brainer, but the teachers said ‘thanks but no thanks!’

“In their e-mail rejection, they expressed concern that other ‘special interests’ might ask to distribute materials, too; they said they didn’t want to offer ‘political endorsement’ of the film; and they saw ‘little, if any, benefit to NSTA or its members’ in accepting the free DVDs.

“The movie has been enthusiastically endorsed by leading climate scientists worldwide, and is required viewing for all students in Norway and Sweden.

“But there was one more curious argument in the e-mail: Accepting the free  DVDs, the science teachers wrote, would place ‘unnecessary risk upon the NSTA capital campaign, especially certain targeted supporters’.  One of those supporters, it turns out, is the Exxon Mobil Corp.

“That’s the same Exxon Mobil that for more than a decade has done everything possible to muddle public understanding of global warming and stifle any serious effort to solve it. It has run ads in leading newspapers questioning the role of man-made emissions in global warming, and financed the work of a small band of scientific skeptics who have tried to challenge the consensus that heat-trapping pollution is drastically altering our atmosphere.”

In fact, Exxon Mobil’s foundation gave $42 million last year to key organizations that influence the way children learn about science, from kindergarten until they graduate from high school, adds David.

But wait. Exxon Mobil isn’t the only one buying themselves a classroom soapbox. Through textbooks, classroom posters, free lesson plans and teacher seminars, the petroleum industry (including Exxon Mobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and Shell Oil) can exploit shortfalls in education funding by investing a small slice of their record profits in adolescent learning.

To learn more about how petroleum is used in your everyday life and how it physically affects the health of your body, check out the Ecology Center’s Body Map.

Or to find out what’s in the beauty and personal care products you use, check the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Safety Database.


See also:  Plastic Shopping Bags Are Good For You – and for Industry!

6 thoughts on “50 surprising products you use every day that are made from petroleum

  1. With all the chaos reported about the oil spill in the Gulf, many are slamming the oil industry and its products. Do we realize how much of our modern life includes petroleum products? Thanks for sharing this list. Very useful, thanks 🙂

    • Paige, it’s not the petroleum-based household products that use up most of the world’s energy resources – it’s our over-the-top reliance on fuels for transportation.

  2. OMG it might be easier to just list the products around my house that do NOT contain petroleum. I had no clue – my lip gloss, underwear, and even breath mints?!?! Who would guess?

    • Yes my day is ruined too – but what are we to do? Can we imagine a modern society without these petroleum products? Seriously? Personally, I need the elastic waistbands in my boxers…

  3. OMG i have a wicked science teacher that is making us do a 20 page packet on petroleum every day and its due the next day GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR

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