Hand Balms, Creams & Lotions

In Victorian times when a pale, flawless skin was considered desirable, a smooth, delicate, white hand was considered an important part of a woman’s charms.

A fine hand in male or female is always pleasing; and next to the charms of a beautiful face, a woman has an undoubted right to be proud of a fine delicately tapered hand, and a symmetrical and elegantly rounded arm.

(The toilette of health, beauty, and fashion, 1834, p. 137)

To protect their hands, women were advised to wear gloves when venturing outdoors and to apply soothing or softening preparations overnight. For clammy hands powders were suggested. Bleaches were recommended to lighten them but evening white could be smoothed on to make the hands look whiter when going out at night.

See also: Bleach Creams and Liquid Face Powders


The soothing and softening power of cosmetics got a major boost with the introduction of glycerine in the late nineteenth century. It became an essential ingredient in many skin-care cosmetics including those used on the hands. Prior to this, greasy fats and oils were used to soften the hands overnight – applied under gloves to stop the grease from soiling the linen – with or without a whitening agent such as benzoin.

The use of “cosmetic gloves,” as they are called has long been known in some countries, and there are ladies who glove themselves as regularly on retiring to bed, as they do on the street. These gloves, when designed simply to soften and whiten the hands, are prepared by brushing inside a pair of stout kid or dog-skin gloves with the following mixture:—
Yelk [sic] of two fresh eggs,
Oil of sweet almonds, of each two tablespoonfuls;
Tincture of benzoin a dessertspoonful; Rose-water a tablespoonful.
Beat them well together, and keep in a closely corked bottle. The gloves should be freshly painted every night, and the same pair should not be used longer than two weeks.

(Brinton & Napheys, 1870, pp. 154-155)

Glycerine was simple to use, did not have a greasy feel and could be worn under gloves during the day as well as smoothed on at night.

Since Baron Alibert’s time we have discovered something even better than the oil of Aix; it is glycerine. A bottle of pure glycerine—but chemically pure, remember, without any of those salts of lime or of lead which are found in much of the glycerine sold, and which will discolor and irritate the skin—should form an indispensable adjunct to every lady’s toilet set. A teaspoon of it in a pint of water will soften and protect the hands from the air. It should be rubbed in but not wiped off.

(Brinton & Napheys, 1870, p. 153)

Glycerine was commonly used to protect the skin from winter chapping. Its use was not restricted to the hands and most of the popular commercial skin-care cosmetics that contained it recommended its use on all parts of the body. Clark’s Glycola, for example, was suggested for the arms, face and hands.

Protect your skin using Clark’s Glycola—a little massaged well into the skin will keep your hands smooth, soft and youthful—used regularly before you go out at night, and in the morning, it will prevent ugly chapped hands and chilblains.
Glycola makes an excellent powder base and is economical in use. Before the dance or evening party massage a little on hands, arms and face, before applying powder.

(Clark’s Glycola advertisement, 1933)

Glycola was not alone in this and until the 1930s many cosmetic lines used to soothe and soften the hands – such as Frostilla, Campana, Hinds, Jergens and Pacquins – were developed as general skin-care preparations. Consumers generally preferred liquid preparations (balms and lotions) to solids (creams) as these could more quickly and easily cover large areas of the body.


Many early preparations used on the hands were formulated as glycerine creams or jellies. Although some of these were called, or described as, lotions I will refer to all formulations of this type as balms to separate them from the liquid emulsions that became popular at a later date. A good example of this type of product was Campana Italian Balm, a Canadian cosmetic developed in the 1880s and first manufactured in the United States in the 1920s.

See also: Glycerine Creams and Jellies

Like their counterparts used to protect the face in cold weather most hand balms relied on glycerine as the anti-chapping agent. Commonly, they were made as a mixture of glycerine and rosewater with a gum (mucilage) added as a thickener. Early versions used natural gums – such as gelatine, karaya, tragacanth, quince seed, Irish moss, agar agar or gum arabic – with quince seed being the most favoured.

Jelly for the Hands (Monin)
Gelatine7 grams
Glucose30 grams
Glycerine180 grams
Water90 grams
Oil of rose5 drops

(Durvelle, 1923, p. 257)

Later balms also used sodium alginate derived from seaweed, or synthetic gums such as carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) when it became available in the mid-twentieth century. Other additives sometimes included in these cosmetics included: boric acid for its antiseptic and soothing properties; alcohol to speed up the drying time; and citric acid as a skin lightener.

Hand Balm Lemon Lotion
CMC Medium Viscosity2.0%
Citric Acid4.0%
Lemon Perfume0.7%

(Keithler, 1956, p. 313)

Balms had a smooth, non-greasy feel when applied to the skin but they suffered from two major problems. First, even when alcohol was added, they took a relatively long time to rub into the skin and dry. Second, they often developed a slimy feel if the hands perspired or came into contact with water, even hours after the balm had been applied (Keithler, 1956).

Hand balms were still in some demand in the 1950s but by then their popularity had fallen well behind emulsified hand creams and lotions. However, they did not disappear altogether and glycerine balms are still being sold today, with Corn Huskers Lotion being a modern American example of the type.

Creams and lotions

In the 1920s, hand balms began to be supplanted by oil-in-water or water-in-oil emulsions. A good early example of a product of this type was Hinds’ Honey and Almond Cream, a liquid preparation advertised as both a hand and body lotion.

See also: A. S. Hinds

Commonly, formulations were modified vanishing (stearate) emulsions made up as a liquid cream (lotion). These were ‘greaseless’ and rubbed into the skin easily without rolling. Of course, women could simply use a vanishing cream on their hands and many did.

Before going out in winter days, rub a bit of vanishing cream into your hands. This will keep them soft. If you wear evening white on them when you go to parties, be sure to rub it in thoroughly and be equally sure to remove it before retiring as it is very drying.

(Hand yourself beauty, 1931, p. 104)

See also: Vanishing Creams

As with the balms, glycerine was still the primary emollient in the earlier preparations. Gums were often included to thicken them, help stabilise the emulsion and give the lotion a smooth feeling. Preservatives were also needed to prevent spoilage. An example formulation is given below:

Per Cent
Stearic acid3.00
Mineral oil5.00
Quince seed3.50

(Chilson, 1934, p. 222)

Early hand lotions were dispensed from glass bottles so their consistency was an important consideration. If the lotion was too runny it would be difficult to use but if it was too stiff it would be hard to pour from the bottle. As well as adjusting the amount of gum in the mixture, the lotion’s consistency could be modified with substances such as ricinoleic acid: the more ricinoleic acid used the more fluid the lotion (deNavarre, 1941, p. 293).

1935 Assorted hand balms, lotions and liquid creams

Above: 1935 Assorted hand balms, lotions and liquid creams in glass bottles.

It was also possible to make a lotion along the lines of a traditional beeswax/borax cold cream. As these were water-in-oil emulsions they were not ‘greaseless’ but this would be less of a problem if they were spread on the hands at night under loose cotton gloves or applied to hands like a cleanser which was then rubbed in or largely removed with a cloth.

Per Cent
White beeswax0.75
Pulverised neutral white soap2.50
Almond oil3.00
Quince seed2.50

(Chilson, 1934, p. 222)

Although not as popular as hand lotions, hand creams were also made. Like the lotions, most hand creams made in the 1920s were formulated along the lines of a ‘greaseless’ vanishing cream, with many including gums/mucilages their formulation.

Per Cent
Stearic acid10.50
Glyceryl mono stearate2.50
Strong ammonia solution2.50
Quince seed2.25

Procedure: [Soak the quince seed overnight in] two-thirds of the water; put the rest of the ingredients into a kettle and heat until a homogeneous solution is effected. Mix until the temperature drops to about 80° C. then stir in the quince seed mucilage and continue stirring until the temperature drops to 40° C. at which point add the perfume and preservative dissolved in the alcohol.

(Chilson, 1934, p. 105)

Hand creams were also made with added fats and oils or as water-in-oil emulsions. These could be used at night to soften the hands while sleeping or during the day on hands that were dry. Again, rather than buying a hand cream of this type, women could simply apply a cold cream or something similar.

Improvements in formulation

During the 1930s, cosmetic chemists began to pay more attention to this class of cosmetics.

Last spring, when we were complaining about the status of hand preparations—and most explicitly hand lotions, something greater than the insight of the experts was pointing toward a change for the better. So it was no expert’s prediction that hand preparations would come through a renovation, and we take no credit, if any is ensuing.
Complaining about hand lotions we said, “gums aren’t healing at all; glycerine is overrated as an emollient; too little healing power in lotions when it is needed; why so much wax or cheap oil; and how about that free alkali . . . ”
The reaction that followed was so gratifying that we knew right then that work was being done on the problem.

(deNavarre, 1935, p. 71)

Exactly why this happened is unclear but it might have been due to an increase in consumer demand. Unlike other cosmetics, sales of manicure lines were largely unaffected by the Great Depression and, as red nail polish became more fashionable and drew attention to the hands, this may have increased the demand for hand creams and lotions.

See also: Nail Polish

As incomes tightened and people became more budget conscious, preparations that had multiple uses also offered better value for money. Andrew Jergens, for example, also recommended its Jergens Lotion as powder base, a neck and arm softener, a sunburn and windburn protectant, an after-shave lotion in addition to it being a hand lotion.

Also see the Jergens company booklet: Your Skin and Its Care

Hand creams and lotions in the 1930s may also have received a sales boost from an increased emphasis on protecting hands from housework. Between the two world wars most women washed their dishes and clothes by hand and soap manufacturers like Lever Brothers had been running advertisements on the perils of dishpan hands since the middle of the 1920s. During the 1930s, the idea that hand creams and lotions could be used to combat the effects of housework took hold and many cosmetic companies used this idea to help sell their hand preparations all year round.


Above: 1934 Lever Brothers advertisement for Lux.

This increased interest in hand cosmetics during the 1930s is reflected in the fact that a number of cosmetic companies added hand preparations to their skin-care lines during the decade. Most of these new additions were creams which were easier to make than lotions but the idea that creams were more ‘powerful’ than lotions should not be ruled out. Examples included: Ogilvie Sisters Hand Cream, Cutex Hand Cream and Marie Earle Hand Lotion (1932); Sofskin Crème, Pond’s Cream Lotion and Helena Rubinstein Herbal Hand Balm (1935); Peggy Sage Gardenia Liquid Hand Cream, Elizabeth Arden Hand-O-Tonik and Petalskin Hand Cream (1936); Rose Laird Shaperone Hand Cream and Harriet Hubbard Ayer Hand Cream (1937); and Charles of the Ritz Velvet Glove Hand Lotion and Revlon Hand Cream (1938). Even Campana followed the trend adding Campana Hand Cream to its existing Campana Balm in 1940.

1940 Campana Hand Cream

Above: 1940 Campana Hand Cream.

Whatever the reason for the increased attention, during the 1930s most hand creams and lotions underwent major improvements in their formulation. Cosmetic chemists were helped in this process by a better understanding of the nature of emulsions and through the introduction of new raw materials such as lanolin absorption bases, glyceryl monostearate, triethanolamine compounds, acid emulsifiers and sulphonated fatty alcohols.

One important change was an overall reduction in the use of gums which, as mentioned earlier, could leave the hands feeling sticky when moist. The reduced reliance on gums now allowed many products to be advertised as ‘non-sticky’, an important consideration for many women.

Hand protectants

The healing, protecting and beautifying functions of pre-war hand preparations were nicely summarised by deNavarre (1935).


Above: Formulation of various hand cream preparations (deNavarre, 1935, p. 72).

However, the protective function of pre-war hand cosmetics was largely limited to reducing redness and chapping by applying a balm, cream or lotion after the household chores were finished. The development of hand preparations that offered better protection was stimulated by the start of the Second World War.

Barrier creams and lotions

During the war there was an influx of women into heavy industry and other positions vacated by men inducted into the armed forces.

Female factory worker in the 1940s

Above: Female factory worker in the 1940s.

Industrial work often resulted in the development of coarse hands or worse, industrial dermatitis. In many cases the problems were caused by scrubbing the hands with harsh cleansers after a shift was over rather than contact with chemicals during the working day. Men might put up with this but women doing similar work were generally not prepared to endure the consequences. Naturally women looked to hand preparations to help protect and/or restore their hands from the stresses of factory work but they often found that traditional hand creams and lotions did not function well enough. What was needed was a hand preparation that was applied before work as a protective barrier rather than smoothed on after work as a restorative.

Britain entered the war over two years before the United States, and cosmetic chemists there became concerned about this problem well before their American counterparts. The Americans got more interested after 1942 and by 1945 a range of cosmetics that came to be known as ‘invisible gloves’ or barrier creams had been developed to help reduce the incidence of industrial dermatitis.

1940 Sternocleanse

Above: 1940 Sternocleanse.

After the war some effort was made to convince women to use barrier creams in the home but, by and large, they failed to gain much traction in the domestic market.

See also: Barrier Creams & Lotions


Women who came to appreciate the usefulness of a good hand cream or lotion during the war continued to use them in peacetime. Advertising of the period followed lines similar to those established before the war, accentuating the need to stop hands from becoming rough from housework and contact with ‘harsh detergents’. The idea of ‘harsh detergents’ was largely the invention of copywriters working for the large soap and detergent companies and there is little evidence that they were a significant cause of hand eczema or dermatitis.

As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, hand preparations joined other skin-care cosmetics in highlighting their moisturising and anti-ageing qualities. Additives such as hormones, royal jelly and skin lighteners like hydroquinone were also used to try to give products a marketing edge and generate sales. However, as reported by Kalish, the readers of the American magazine ‘Good Housekeeping’ still considered effectiveness against roughness to be the most important quality for a hand cream or lotion (Kalish, 1959, p. 310).

Rough hands became less of a problem as new domestic appliances – such as washing machines and dishwashers – reduced the exposure of hands to chemical and physical insults during housework. However, as was the case before the war, many women used these cosmetics on other parts of their body. This may be the reason behind the continued popularity of hand lotions which were still outselling hand creams by at least three to one (deNavarre, 1975).


As the twentieth century continued to progress, cosmetic companies put more emphasis on general body-care cosmetics rather than products specifically for the hands. This remains the situation today. An examination of the cosmetic shelves at a local pharmacy, drug store, chemist or supermarket will reveal that body-care cosmetics now far outnumber those for hand-care, with products specifically labelled as hand lotions or creams relegated to a small section, often positioned on a lower shelf.

Updated: 22nd September 2017


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