Vanishing creams get their name from the fact that they seem to disappear when spread on the skin. The first commercial vanishing cream, Hazeline Snow, was introduced by Burroughs Wellcome in 1892. Pond’s, whose name is closely linked with vanishing creams, began production in 1904.
See also: Hazeline Snow
Despite the fact that vanishing creams were advertised as beauty creams, they were also used as a base for face powders. Early loose powders did not adhere well, 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. A cold cream could have been used but it had a greasy feel so was unsuitable for most women unless their skin was very low in oil. Vanishing creams had a non-oily feel and were generally considered to be 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 oil-in-water emulsions consisting of stearic acid, an alkali, a polyol and water. The alkali reacts with some of the stearic acid – the best was triple pressed (t.p.) – to form a soap which then functions as the emulsifier. The polyol (e.g. glycerin) helped to soften and protect the skin, and prevent chaps, a function it also provided when used to make glycerine creams and jellies.
See also: Glycerine Creams and Jellies
There were limits to how much polyol could be included in the formulation; too much and it would absorb water from the air. If the vanishing cream was used as a powder foundation this could cause the powder to spot, making frequent repowdering necessary (Poucher, 1926, p. 36).
Glycerine also acted as a humectant which helped prevent the vanishing cream from drying and cracking during storage in its container. However, packaging the cream in a screw top jar or tube was also important to maintain its consistency. Many early vanishing creams therefore came sealed with a screw-top lid made from aluminium as it did not rust. These later gave way to plastic lids.
The selection of an alkali also affected the consistency of the cream. Sodium soaps – made with alkalis like sodium hydroxide or borax – led to hard creams with a poor sheen, while potassium soaps – made with an alkali such as potassium hydroxide – produced a soft cream with a good consistency and sheen (deNavarre, 1941, p. 243).
Some early vanishing creams – often called ‘snows’ or ‘foams’ – used carbonates or bicarbonates as the alkali which released carbon dioxide during the production process. Some of the carbon dioxide 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.
Per Cent Stearic acid t. p. 17.0 Sodium carbonate 0.5 Potassium hydroxide 0.5 Glycerin 6.0 Water 71.0 Alcohol 4.5 Perfume 0.5
Procedure: Melt the stearic acid. Make a solution of the alkalies in one-third of the water, add the glycerin. Then add the solution with a steady agitation to the melted fats, continue stirring until emulsification has taken place; then add the remainder of the water heated to the same temperature. Continue stirring until the temperature has dropped to about 40°C. Dissolve the perfume in the alcohol and stir this in. Allow the batch to stand aside for a day before filling.
Occasionally, a gum might be included in the formulation to improve the stability of the emulsion and help the cream go on more smoothly:
Per Cent Stearic acid t. p. 19.0 Glycerin 6.5 Potassium hydroxide 1.0 Water 65.5 Gum tragacanth powder 2.0 Alcohol 5.5 Perfume 0.5
Procedure: Mix the perfume, alcohol, and add the tragacanth and mix with half of the water. Heat the rest of the water, dissolve the alkali in it and add the glycerin. Melt the stearic acid and mix in the alkali solution. When emulsified, heat the tragacanth solution slightly and add with steady mixing.
In the 1930s, triethanolamine largely replaced the older potassium soaps. As well as being less irritating to the skin, it helped 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%
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 and if they were absent it disappeared.
See also: Pearl Essence
The use of self-emulsifying polyol stearates became common in the 1930s. A good example of one of these compounds was Tegin, developed by the German company Goldschmidt AG in the late 1920s. 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 Tegin were also softer than traditional stearate creams but unfortunately they often lost the traditional pearly sheen.
As vanishing creams were non-greasy they were 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, and may have slightly elevated the amount of oil in the cream to help powder adhere to the face. Max Factor went one step further and sold coloured vanishing cream in his Society Make-up range – in White, Flesh, Rachelle and Natural shades – advertising it as Make-up Foundation Cream.
See also: Powder Creams
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 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, new ingredients and formulations allowed cosmetic companies to develop specialised skin-care cosmetics. This led to stearate creams being sold 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 and products named by function, rather than by look or feel, became the norm.
The introduction of creams based on function helped cosmetic companies differentiate their lines from competitors. It also gave consumers an impression of product sophistication. Cold creams and vanishing creams therefore 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. Consequently, sales of vanishing creams began to fall in the late 1930s.
See also: Cold Creams
Pond’s, a major manufacturer of vanishing creams, may have inadvertently contributed to their decine. 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 brands other than Pond’s, who then had to resort to celebrity endorsements to maintain sales (Kay, 2005, p. 50).
Despite the demise of products labelled ‘vanishing cream’, stearate creams continue to be manufactured to this day – with hand or body creams and lotions, and shaving creams being good examples – 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: 19th May 2017
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.