Turtles and their eggs have been hunted for their food and oil by indigenous people for centuries but the number of turtles and turtle eggs they took was relatively small compared to those taken after European colonisation.
When Europeans colonised areas where turtles were found, they often captured and killed them on an industrial scale. Turtle eggs and the turtles themselves were converted into oil to be used as cooking oil when fresh, but it was also stored to be used to oil leather, as a lubricant, or burnt as a heating or lighting fuel (Simmonds, 1879, p. 368).
As well as collecting turtle eggs for oil, hawksbill turtles were killed for their shells – which were made into tortoiseshell combs, fans, boxes and other articles – and green turtles were harvested for their flesh, which was sent, fresh or canned, to be consumed on Western dining tables.
Turtle soup was such a popular dish in late-nineteenth-century England that canneries were set up in the Americas to make and export it.
Green turtle soup is now manufactured in America and the West Indies. A manufactory at Key West, Florida, puts up in air-tight cans for exportation 200,000 Ibs. yearly, and employs 10 vessels and 60 men in collecting the turtle. It is sent to England and Cuba chiefly. At Jamaica some factories are also doing a good business in a preparation worthy of the gastronomic patronage of an aldermanic banquet, so rich is it in green fat and calipee, calipash, and those delicate gelatinous morsels appertaining to the fins. A steady supply of turtle is obtained monthly through the West India and Pacific steamers from Colon [Panama], besides those brought from the Caymanas. 5484 Ibs. of prepared turtle, valued at £356, were shipped from Jamaica in 1874.
Cosmetics were another matter. Although there is evidence that turtle oil had long been used for skin care by the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, it did not find its way into Western skin creams, in any major way, until the 1930s. The practice seems to have started in Europe and probably came out of the same German and French research into the use of animal serums and extracts – opotherapy/organotherapy – that led to the introduction of hormones and other tissue extracts in skin creams.
A foreign manufacturer advertised a turtle hormone cosmetic at a high price. This cosmetic was alleged to contain the active substance from the turtle skin and was said to be a rejuvenator. Almost immediately other manufacturers tried to copy the product with turtle oil as the active ingredient.
The logic behind the use of turtle oil was something along the lines of: “Turtles live to a ripe old age. This is due to the oil in their bodies. Thus, If a cream containing turtle oil is smeared on the face, miraculous skin rejuvenation will result” (Hearings: US Congress, 1960). As well as long lives, turtles were also thought to have exceptional powers of skin healing. Added to this were stories about native women who used turtle oil on their face being wrinkle free.
Turtle oil could be crudely extracted by heating turtle fat and other body parts in large kettles – when the oil separated out it was drained off and canned – but more up-to-date operators used steam distillation to rendered the oil (deNavarre & Ruszkowski, 1933, p. 17). Although turtles could be used specifically for this purpose, a lot of the oil produced was also created as a byproduct of the canned turtle soup industry.
After the oil was extracted it would be refined and then stabilised to prevent it from going rancid. Many turtle oils were of a dark colour and had a strong odour, so the oil might also need deodorising and decolouring before it could be added to skin creams. One of the reasons why green sea turtles – Atlantic or Pacific – were the preferred source of cosmetic turtle oil was that the oil they produced was less odouriferous.
Like other biological materials, the nature and quality of turtle oil varied considerably, depending on its source and how it was extracted and purified. This large variation in turtle oils made it difficult for cosmetic chemists of the time to analyse the properties of the oil and come to any specific conclusions about its properties and effectiveness. The situation was complicated by the fact that a lot of turtle oil was adulterated, with shark oil being a common substitute.
Oil from the turtle has found rather recent use in the cosmetic industry in the U.S.A., probably more as a new line of publicity than on its actual merits. On the whole, however, it would seem to have undergone a rather unfair test, as it is very difficult to obtain unadulterated oil on the open market, and if this is obtained it is usually at such an exorbitant price that its use in creams to any considerable extent seems to be prohibited. Particularly this is so if a large and expensive amount of perfume must be used to hide the repellent odour of the crude oil.
The adulteration problem did not go away as the century progressed. A well known advocate of turtle oil in the 1950s, Dr. Nadja Avalle, found that most samples of turtle oil she examined were grossly adulterated, some containing less than 10 per cent turtle oil (SPC, 1956).
Despite these problems, a number of assays of turtle oil were conducted in the 1930s. These concluded that turtle oils did not appear to contain any hormones, ‘youthifying agents’ or turtle skin extracts. Some included material taken from various turtle glands but any active ingredients they might have contained were inactivated by the heating and chemical processes involved in the extraction and refinement of the oil; for example, turtle oil contained vitamin A, but this was often removed when the oil was filtered through kaolin or charcoal to improve its colour and odour. By the middle of the 1930s most cosmetic chemists had come to the conclusion that there was nothing about the oil that would substantiate the considerable hype attributed to it; even its supposed astringent properties were questioned.
Turtle oil is claimed to be one of the most powerful “natural astringents” known. It is difficult to see how such a claim can be substantiated, as it possesses none of the properties which can be associated with “astringency”.
In the 1930s, turtle oils were incorporated into a wide range of cosmetics and toiletries including perfumes, soaps, face creams, cleansers, hand creams, eyelash growers and mascaras. Admittedly, most of the companies that used it were minors rather than the majors; perhaps they hoped that turtle oil would help them break into the crowded cosmetics market in the more difficult years of the depression.
Most turtle oil creams made in the 1930s contained less than than 10 per cent of the oil with many creams being less than 5 per cent (deNavarre & Ruszkowski, 1933, p. 17). Two recipes for turtle oil creams are given below. Clearly, if the oil was to be of any value as a ‘skin nutrient‘, greater quantities than these would needed in a formulation.
Diglycol stearate 11.6 g. Mineral oil, white 31.5 g. Lanolin 4.7 g. Water, distilled 49.75 g. Petrolatum, white 1.65 g. Turtle oil 0.5 g. Perfume 0.3 g.
Emulsify at 75-78° C., perfume at 50° C., stir until cooled at 38° C.
If you wish to thin this down, add mineral oil.
Turtle Oil (Pale Deodorized) 10 Diglycol Stearate 10 Liquid Paraffin 30 Lanolin Absorption Base 9 Perfume 1 Water (distilled) 40
Melt the fats and wax and stir in the hot Water at a temperature of 170°F. The Perfume is added with slow stirring when the batch has cooled to about 120°F., after which the stirring device may be switched off, and the batch allowed to cool.
Although the turtle oil craze had faded well before the beginning of the Second World War, products containing it continued to be produced through to the 1970s. Of all the products that were developed Estée Lauder’s cream of creams ‘Re-Nutriv’ introduced in 1957 is perhaps the most infamous. Containing turtle oil, shark oil and royal jelly in a 22 carat golden jar it launched with a catchy advertising campaign asking “What makes a cream worth $115.00?”.
Rare ingredients. Rare formula. But above all, the rare perception of a woman like Estée Lauder who knows almost better than anyone how to keep looking younger, fresher, lovelier than you ever dreamed possible. She has created what she likes to think of as “a goldmine of beauty” – her Creme of Creams RE-NUTRIV.
This treasury of some of the world’s costliest ingredients includes Turtle Oil, Shark Oil, Royal Jelly, Silicone and Leichol, plus 20 additional ingredients never before blended into one jar of cream. This concentration of youthgiving agents helps rebuild and firm the skin, reflecting the freshness and radiance of a years-younger complexion.
The name of the cream was calculated to suggest that these ingredients were skin nutrients, thereby getting around any potential problems with United States regulatory authorities like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Despite the perception that the ingredients included in Re-Nutriv were rare and expensive, this was more fiction than fact.
Although Estée Lauder listed turtle oil, along with shark oil, as one of the world’s costliest rare ingredients, a check showed that the oils were available in sloshing quantities at prices that ranged from a penny to six cents per ounce. Their rarity can be measured by the nuisance-point abundance of turtles and sharks. Suppliers were eager to ship ready surpluses for any cream that would take it.
Like a star making a comeback, the turtle can swan its wrinkled neck back to the twenties and early thirties, when it was a thing of beauty to cosmetic manufacturers. Turtlers, glad to get rid of the smelly oil left over after soup-making and other turtle business had reason to admire the acumen of the cosmetic promotors able to make women accept the turtle-for-beauty campaign.
Conservationists like Archie Carr [1909-1987] drew attention to the plight of the sea turtle.
As the world became more ecologically conscious, the use of turtle oil and other animal products in skin creams became advertising poison. Eventually, as countries around the world placed legislative bans on the importation and use of endangered species, it became impossible, even for turtle farms, to export turtle products to many countries. Cosmetics that contained turtle oil were either discontinued or substituted the turtle oil with something else; for example, in response to criticism by conservationists and because of the ban on such materials in California, the Polly Bergen Company announced in 1975 that the natural turtle oil in its skin care lines would be replaced with a new artificial lubricating emollient called ‘Replensil’.
There are still cosmetics labelled as ‘Turtle Oil’ or ‘Turtle Cream’ or ‘Creme de Tortuga’ on the market but most of these are not made with real turtle oil.
A careful look at the ingredients list will help any purchaser make sure this is the case.
Updated: 9th December 2014
Ash, M. & Ash, I. (1977). A formulary of cosmetic preparations. New York: Chemical Publishing Co. Inc.
deNavarre, M. G. & Ruszkowski, S. (1933). Turtle Oil. The American Perfumer & Essential Oil Review. March, 16-18.
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