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 the skin 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. Cold cream could have been used but it had a greasy feel and was unsuitable unless the skin was very low in oil. Vanishing cream, being water-based, had a non-oily feel and was 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 can also be called stearate creams. Chemically they are an oil-in-water emulsion consisting of a stearic acid, an alkali, a polyol and water. The alkali forms a soap with some of the stearic acid thereby producing an emulsion. The polyol (e.g. glycerin) makes the cream more spreadable and acts as a humectant to help prevent the cream from drying out and cracking during storage in its container; packaging the cream in a screw top jar or tube was also important in maintaining its water content. The product was noted for its smooth, dry feel on the skin and its pearly sheen.
Some early forms used carbonates or bicarbonates as the alkali. These release carbon dioxide during the production process resulting in a foamy consistency. Some of the carbon dioxide will quickly escape but small bubbles will remain and, in time, will rise to the top of the mixture causing the cream to sink. Using hydroxides as the alkali avoided this problem and potassium hydroxide became a favourite in many 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. This ensured that the cream always had a pearly sheen (deNavarre, 1975, p. 283).
Stearic acid 22.5% Triethanolamine 1.5% Potassium hydroxide 1% Glycerin 6% Water 69%
One characteristic of vanishing creams that fascinated cosmetic chemists of the time was their pearly or satin-like sheen. Chemists were keen to reproduce the effect as the sheen was associated with quality, and a number of theories were put forward to explain the phenomenon. Eventually it was discovered that the pearliness was due to the formation of platelet-like sodium stearate crystals that formed in the mixture. These reflected and refracted light to produce the effect and if absent the sheen disappeared.
See also: Pearl Essence
From the 1930s, self-emulsifying polyol stearates were introduced – the first of which was sold under the name of 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). These creams were also softer than traditional stearate creams but unfortunately they often lost their pearly sheen.
Vanishing creams had the advantage of being non-greasy which made them suitable for use during the day and by women with oily skin. This enabled them to use vanishing cream under their powder which helped hold the powder on their face. The Pompeian Manufacturing Company recognised this and referred to their vanishing cream as Finishing Cream. Max Factor went one step further and included tinted vanishing cream – to go under powder – in his Society Make-up range; sold as Powder Foundation Cream, it came in White, Pink, Rachelle and Natural shades.
In addition to keeping powder on the face, vanishing creams were also advertised as protecting the skin from the elements such as ‘chapping winds’ and ‘sooty breezes’. The presence of a humectant was also was used as the basis for claims 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 additives and formulations gave them opportunities to promote skin products with a wider range of abilities and functions. This led to products labelled as day creams, 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 sales 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). Pond’s continued to promote their vanishing cream until the 1950s after which introduction of the ubiquitous ‘moisturiser’ changed the face cream landscape in the sixties.
See also: Pond’s Extract Company.
Despite the demise of products labelled ‘vanishing cream’, stearate-based creams continue to be formulated and made today into such things as hand creams or shaving creams, 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 products. Some of these are true vanishing creams but others are not. Only a careful reading of the label will tell.
Updated: 25th August 2013
Chilson, F. (1934). Modern cosmetics. New York: Drug & Cosmetic Industry.
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.
Thomssen, B. S. (1947). Modern cosmetics (3rd ed.). New York: Drug & Cosmetic Industry.