Vanishing creams get their name from the fact that they seemed to disappear when spread onto the skin. The first commercial vanishing cream, Hazeline Snow, was introduced by Burroughs Wellcome in 1892. Pond’s, whose name is most closely linked with vanishing creams, began production in 1904.
See also: Hazeline Snow
Despite the fact that vanishing creams were advertised as beauty creams, it is probable that their chief use was as a base for early face powders. Loose powders of the time did not adhere well to the skin, particularly if it had been cleansed with soap and water. Adhesion of the powder was improved if the skin was coated with a surface cream as it gave the powder something to which it could stick. A cold cream could have been used but it had a greasy feel so was unsuitable unless the skin was very low in oil. Vanishing creams, being water-based, had a non-oily feel and were generally a better solution.
No doubt there were circles in which make-up was freely used but it certainly was not in ours, and the flasks and jars contained eau-de-cologne rather than scent, and cold cream as a general lubricant. People who suffered from chapped hands carried glycerine. I had never seen or heard of foundation medium until I went to Paris and then my room-mate and I dashingly brought the smallest-sized tube of Pond’s Vanishing Cream, which we shared. This was a great advance because the powder stuck to our noses and we need not so often squint down with one eye to see if they had acquired the shine which was so much frowned-upon.
Vanishing creams – which can also be called stearate creams – were known for their smooth, dry feel on the skin and their pearly sheen. Chemically they are an oil-in-water emulsion consisting of stearic acid, an alkali, a polyol and water. The alkali reacts with some of the stearic acid to form a soap which then functions as the emulsifier. The polyol (e.g. glycerin) makes the cream more spreadable and also acts as a humectant to help prevent the cream from drying and cracking during storage in its container – packaging the cream in a screw top jar or tube was also important. There were limits to how much polyol could be included in the formulation; too much and it would absorb water from the air, causing the powder to spot and making repowdering necessary (Poucher, 1926, p. 36).
Some early vanishing creams – often called ‘snows’ or ‘foams’ – used carbonates or bicarbonates as the alkali which release carbon dioxide during the production process. Some of the carbon dioxide will quickly quickly escaped but small bubbles remained giving the cream a foamy consistency. Unfortunately, over time the carbon dioxide bubbles rose to the top of the mixture causing the cream to sink. Using hydroxides as the alkali avoided this problem and potassium hydroxide became a favoured ingredient in many vanishing cream formulations.
Stearic acid 17% Sodium carbonate 0.5% Potassium hydroxide 0.5% Glycerin 6% Water 71% Alcohol 4.5% Perfume 0.5%
In the 1920s, the alkali triethanolamine was introduced which ensured that the cream always had a pearly sheen (deNavarre, 1975, p. 283) so its use was widely adopted.
Stearic acid 22.5% Triethanolamine 1.5% Potassium hydroxide 1% Glycerin 6% Water 69%
The nature of the pearly or satin-like sheen of vanishing creams fascinated cosmetic chemists of the time. As the sheen was associated with quality, chemists were keen to reproduce the effect and a number of theories were put forward to explain the phenomenon. It was eventually discovered that the pearliness was due to the formation of platelet-like sodium stearate crystals in the mixture. These reflected and refracted light to produce the sheen; if they were absent it disappeared.
See also: Pearl Essence
From the 1930s, self-emulsifying polyol stearates were introduced, the first of which was sold under the trade name Telgin. Their addition allowed all the materials to be heated and mixed together until they were ready to be poured into containers, making the process of manufacturing vanishing creams a lot simpler (deNavarre, 1975, p. 283). Creams made with Telgin were also softer than traditional stearate creams but unfortunately they often lost the traditional pearly sheen.
Vanishing creams had the advantage of being non-greasy which made them suitable women with oily skin. They were generally used during the day which is why the Pomeroy Company advertised its vanishing cream as a day cream. Pond’s referred to their vanishing cream as a finishing cream, accentuating its use for keeping powder on the face. Max Factor went one step further and tinted the vanishing cream in his Society Make-up range – in White, Pink, Rachelle and Natural shades – and advertised it as a foundation cream.
In addition to keeping powder on the face, vanishing creams were widely advertised as protecting the skin from the elements including ‘chapping winds’ and ‘sooty breezes’. The presence of the humectant glycerine was also was used to claim that they helped reduce moisture loss from dry skin.
Pond’s Vanishing Cream is made especially for the outer skin. It is greaseless. It contains a marvellous substance that prevents loss of skin moisture – actually replaces lost moisture.
You can rest this yourself by a single application of Pond’s Vanishing Cream on dry chapped skin! The roughness is smoothed away! Your skin is pearly looking. And this cream holds powder and rouge smoothly for hours!.
See also: Motor Skin
As vanishing creams had a semi-matt finish, they could also be used without powder to reduce the effects of oiliness and shine on skin where this was a problem, making them popular with African-Americans.
After the First World War, as the number of cosmetic companies increased, new ingredients and formulations gave them opportunities to promote skin products with a wider range of abilities and functions. This led to products labelled as powder creams, tissue creams, foundation creams, hand creams, cleansing creams, youth creams and so forth. Selling creams simply as ‘cold’ or ‘vanishing’ became less and less attractive – products named by function, rather than by look or feel, became the norm – consequently, sales of vanishing creams began to decline in the late 1930s.
The introduction of creams based on function helped cosmetic companies differentiate their lines from competitors. It also gave increasingly educated consumers an impression of product sophistication. Cold creams and vanishing creams became progressively seen as simple and old fashioned. As such, consumers thought it unlikely that they could achieve the results promised by the new lines.
See also: Cold Creams
Pond’s may have inadvertently contributed to this process. In 1916, to improve sales, they began to advertised their vanishing and cold creams together as part of a ‘skin-care regime’ – cold cream to cleanse and ‘feed’ the skin at night, vanishing cream to protect and provide a base for powder during the day. The “every normal skin needs these two creams” campaign was a great success and Pond’s sales of these creams tripled between 1916 and 1920 (Peiss, 1998, p. 121). However, after the war, the creams became a victim of their own success. The idea of a day cream and a night cream became more important than the particular brand. Consumers took the “day cream/night cream” message to heart but applied it to other brands rather than Pond’s, who then had to resort to celebrity endorsements to maintain sales (Kay, 2005, p. 50).
See also: Pond’s Extract Company.
Despite the demise of products labelled ‘vanishing cream’, stearate-based creams continue to be formulated and made into such things as hand creams or shaving creams to this day, so in that sense, vanishing creams never really disappeared. In addition, the rising interest in vintage products has see a re-emergence of the word ‘vanishing’ on the labels of a number of skin-care lines. Some of these are true stearate creams but others are not. Only a careful reading of the label will tell.
Updated: 1st June 2015
Chilson, F. (1934). Modern cosmetics. New York: Drug & Cosmetic Industry.
deNavarre, M. G. (1941). The chemistry and manufacture of cosmetics. Boston: D. Van Nostrand Company.
deNavarre, M. G. (1975). The chemistry and manufacture of cosmetics. (2nd. ed., Vol. III). Orlando: Continental Press.
Kay, G. (2005). Dying to be beautiful: The fight for safe cosmetics. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press.
Lewis, L. (1980). The private life of a country house (1912-1939). London: David & Charles.
Peiss, K. (2007). Hope in a jar: The making of America’s beauty culture. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Poucher, W. A. (1926). Eve’s beauty secrets. London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd.
Thomssen, B. S. (1947). Modern cosmetics (3rd ed.). New York: Drug & Cosmetic Industry.