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It’s true that retro-inspired fashion transcends trendiness, but as for our choice in skin care, we’ll take it brand-new and cutting-edge, thanks. The classics have their benefits—they’re tried and true, after all—but we see no reason why we should be using the same cold cream our grandmothers swore by when research, technology, and #innovation have made so much headway in developing science-backed skin care that really makes a huge difference.
We will say, though, when so many women swear by something for so long, there must be some truth to it beyond the fact that there just weren’t nearly as many options back then. The reason we want to know the beauty secrets of yore in the first place is we want to know how the chicks in the black-and-white photographs looked so good in a time before monthly microdermabrasion—and maybe they really do have nothing but Vaseline to thank.
We asked dermatologists Dr. Heidi Waldorf of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and Dr. David Stoll, the Beverly Hills-based author of A Woman’s Skin, to offer their expert insight on the legacy of six retro skin-care classics and whether or not they’re still worth using. Maybe the world pre–La Mer wasn’t as bleak as we originally thought.
The “mother of all modern creams” (their words, not ours) first hit the market in 1911 with a standard base of mineral oil, petrolatum, glycerin, wax, and lanolin. The formula today is very much the same, and also includes the terrifyingly named (and known irritant) preservatives methylchloroisothiazolinone and methylisothiazolinone.
Dr. Stoll and Dr. Waldorf both agree that mineral oil, petrolatum, and glycerin are skin-safe moisturizers, but there are other ingredients that could be troubling to certain skin types. “[Nivea Creme] isn’t always good for patients with eczema because of the presence of lanolin,” Dr. Waldorf says, and Dr. Stoll adds that some people may be sensitive to the fragrance.
Despite its enduring popularity—it’s said to be Kate Middleton‘s go-to—Nivea Creme is pretty much as bare bones as a moisturizer can get. Says Dr. Waldorf, “There are other, more cosmetically pleasing creams containing better emollients [for a silky feel].”
Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion
Raise your hand if your first introduction to skin care was your mother foisting the unmistakable yellow pump bottle of Dramatically Different upon you. The cult classic cream, which launched in 1968, got a bit of a revamp a few years back, but the foundation of the formula is the same: Mineral oil, glycerin, and petrolatum are the first three ingredients after water, as they’ve been for the past nearly five decades.
Dr. Waldorf admits, “[Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion] has never been my favorite, but for the very oily patient who won’t use anything else, it does provide moderate hydration without the feel of a cream.” With that said, the formula lacks many of the ingredients we now have at our disposal to keep skin at its optimal hydration levels—it’s very, very basic and therefore not particularly impressive. “In my experience,” Dr. Waldorf adds, “many patients use this in the morning alone, and it provides no sun protection.”
Born in 1949, the original “Oil of Olay” was a game changer because of its texture—at the time, most moisturizers were thick creams, whereas Olay was a lightweight pink fluid. The composition of Original Active Hydrating Beauty Fluid is almost identical to the original, with water, glycerin, cetyl palmitate, and mineral oil closely followed by petrolatum in the ingredients list.
As Dr. Stoll points out, Olay scores some points for having glycerin as its second ingredient. Glycerin holds up to this day as a fantastic noncomedogenic humectant, so it really helps skin to preserve moisture rather than just imparting a smooth feeling. Cetyl palmitate is a fatty acid lipid, which provides the emollients for the glycerin to seal in—but be warned, as this waxy oil is frequently derived from animals, and can become rancid and result in skin irritation. (Gross.)
A genuine skin-care “secret” from the past—no movie star that we know of has ever publicly copped to worshipping at the Albolene altar, rather it was (and still is) the province of in-the-know nanas, theater makeup artists, and even drag queens, thanks to its capacity for removing even the heaviest of makeup. Like a cleanser and moisturizer in one, Albolene has been made with just five ingredients since 1905: mineral oil, petrolatum, paraffin, ceresin, and beta-carotene.
You’re meant to massage the cream into skin then wipe it away with a tissue or towel, removing makeup and debris in the process, which Dr. Stoll says could get “a little bit greasy.” Dr. Waldorf, however, is a big fan. “I do recommend Albolene for patients who have sensitive or dry skin, or who wear long-wearing or thick makeup,” she says. “When it was relaunched about a decade ago, I gave samples to my grandmother, who told me that [her mother], my great-grandmother, used it daily.” Pro tip: Try using Albolene in place of water as a base for a scrub or microdermabrasion crystals for extra moisture.
Noxzema was originally developed as a sunburn remedy back in 1904, but thanks to the tingly, refreshing feel of camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus, it became a popular facial cleanser and makeup remover over time. It has a moisturizing, fatty-acid-rich base of stearic acid, linseed oil, and soybean oil, which gives it a creamy, viscous feel.
The name comes from the phrase no eczema, which Dr. Waldorf finds interesting considering that camphor and menthol can be extremely irritating to the skin. For a formula meant to clean chapped or sunburnt skin, Dr. Waldorf says she can’t imagine it being soothing, which probably means now is not the time to go putting it on your eczema.
We wouldn’t dream of slathering our faces in thick, greasy Vaseline, but that’s how Marilyn Monroe claimed to have maintained her clear complexion. She used it as a moisturizer, a highlighter, and even a primer throughout her career—she liked the glow it imparted, and it gave her a dewy, soft-focus look on camera. Vaseline has been around since 1892, and is a trademarked term now used to refer to purified petroleum jelly. Some people claim petroleum jelly wreaks havoc on their pores and causes crazy breakouts; others swear by it for keeping skin smooth and hydrated.
But regardless of which side you’re on, you’ll find that many costly moisturizers contain petroleum jelly, which makes the backlash to its usage kind of a moot point. Dr. Waldorf confirms that we no longer have any reason to turn up our noses at the stuff: “I have always been the queen of Vaseline,” she says. “White petroleum jelly is inert and a great occlusive—that’s why it’s the base used for ingredients being patch-tested,” like when you’re supposed to dab hair dye on your inner arm 24 hours before using it to make sure you aren’t allergic. (Has anyone ever actually done that? We haven’t.)
Studies have shown that Vaseline promotes cellular healing without the risk of allergy, even indicating that clean biopsy site wounds benefit more from Vaseline than Neosporin. Dr. Waldorf uses it for everything—cuts, scrapes, clean wounds, cuticles, chapped lips, eczema rashes, the delicate under-eye area, calloused feet, dry elbows, knees, as a makeup remover, you name it. “My patients know that when in doubt, use Vaseline.” Dr. Stoll agrees, calling it a “time-proven product.” Haters, fall back.