It was smelly. It wasn’t pleasant to use. It was a cobalt blue glass jar full of thick white cream that could make your eyes water. It was all the rage, and probably in every household in America.
Is Noxzema still a good product for gorgeous, smooth skin? And, more importantly, is it healthy?
Noxzema: A Beauty Staple for More Than 100 Years
Some people may recall that when they were growing up, there was always a jar of Noxzema cold cream in the bathroom. Whenever they got a pimple, all they had to do was put a dot of Noxzema on the pimple overnight and in the morning it was—hopefully—gone.
As A Facial Mask
Noxzema was probably also some peoples' first facial mask. It was common to put it all over your face at night, leaving you looking like a zombie. But you put up with the rather odd smell (eucalyptus and menthol) and the Night of the Living Dead appearance, and patiently waited for it to dry. Because—odds are—you would wake up, rinse it off, and have nice smooth and clear skin in the morning.
A Sunburn Remedy
Noxzema was initially developed in 1914. Dr. George A. Bunting has for a long time been credited as the inventor, but recently it was revealed Maryland physician Francis J. Townsend was actually the originator. Townsend would prescribe his formula called "Townsend R 22" to tourists visiting Ocean City, Maryland to treat sunburn. In an attempt to broaden his market, he gave the formula for his balm to Bunting, who then marketed his own product, "Dr. Bunting's Sunburn Remedy." It was formulated with menthol, camphor and eucalyptus oils to ease sunburn pain and inflamed skin.
Dr. Bunting’s Sunburn Remedy was also beneficial for itchy skin—but that wasn't its only use. As one story has it, a customer claimed that the cream "knocked out” her eczema—which helped coin a new name: Noxzema. The name was a portmanteau of "no eczema," but it was also a play on the customer’s words—knocks-zema. It's disputed whether the name came from, whether it was one or both. What isn’t in dispute, however, is that Bunting made the cream into one of the biggest ever cosmetics success stories.
Feel It Heal
In addition to menthol, camphor and eucalyptus oils, other ingredients in the original formula included carbolic acid, clove oil, and lime water.
Carbolic acid (also called phenol carbolic acid or simply phenol) is made from the distillation of coal tar. It is antimicrobial, so it was used as an antiseptic and preservative, particularly in soaps. It also acts as an exfoliant, and removes dead skin cells—to the point it's still being used for deep chemical peels. However, there is some obvious concern about the safety of it as an ingredient. It was found that ingesting carbolic acid causes paralysis, convulsions, and respiratory failure—it is also believed that it can cause fatal poisoning through skin absorption.
Clove oil is also an antiseptic, and has antimicrobial properties. It's used to improve sagging skin, wrinkles, acne, and for skin rejuvenation. (Note: undiluted, however, it can cause skin problems.)
Lime water, a citric acid that gets rid of dead skin cells, is an astringent that tightens pores, but also inhibits the growth of acne-causing bacteria and brightens the complexion.
The Main Ingredients
Camphor is made by distilling the bark and wood of the camphor tree, but it's also chemically synthesized. It's usually often found in products for cold sores, insect bites and minor skin burns—anything that will need pain or itching reduced. It is FDA-approved for use on the skin to help ease itchiness or irritation, but the FDA only considers a safe amount between the concentration of 3-11%. Used undiluted, or in higher concentrations, it causes irritation or even poisoning and potential liver damage.
Menthol can be derived from peppermint or eucalyptus plants, but it's also frequently synthetically made. It's often used in after sun creams to relieve pain. It also improves blood flow—which is why, when it's used in lip balms and glosses, it gives a plumping effect. Like camphor, it stimulates nerve endings, which gives nerves a cooling sensation.
Eucalyptus also has antiseptic and antibacterial properties and acts as a germicide. It's used on cuts, wounds, infections, irritations, and burns. Initially, it was probably used in the formula to reduce pain from sunburn. Eucalyptus contains menthol, and similarly to camphor, has a cooling sensation on the skin.
It's understandable why it was so popular as a sunburn remedy. But as it turns out, that wasn't the only benefit of Noxzema.
Complexion Cold Cream
In the 1950s Noxzema started being marketed as a skin cleanser and cold cream. This happened, the story goes, after a company secretary noticed how beautiful it made her complexion look. It wasn't long before Noxzema was a household name.
Does It Really Knock Out Eczema?
Camphor is thought to be a good ingredient for eczema and acne because it reduces redness and irritation. It gives a cooling sensation because it stimulates nerve endings, which relieves pain and itching sensations. Its actual use for eczema is debatable. Both camphor and menthol, though cooling, can cause dryness and irritate the skin of some individuals. The manufacturer (Unilever) states that the product has not been tested as a treatment for eczema, and they don't make this claim.
Is Noxzema Good for Acne?
The eucalyptus in Noxzema helps cleanse pores, because it has astringent properties to help heal acne and dry up pimples. Camphor is used frequently in Ayurvedic medicine to treat acne and pimples because of its anti-inflammatory properties.
There are questions about the safety of some of the ingredients in Noxzema products. Camphor may cause irritation and dermatitis in some individuals with continuous use. There are other ingredients that in high concentrations are believed to be carcinogenic (like ammonium hydroxide, a pH adjuster that neutralizes acidity in a product.) Propylene glycol, which acts as a humectant, attracting water to the skin, is considered an irritant. All of these ingredients are considered safe by the FDA—just only in low concentrations. Like all products you should discontinue use if it irritates the skin or you have a bad reaction. To be on the safe side, Noxzema probably shouldn't be applied on broken, inflamed or highly reactive skin.
Still a Classic
Newer formulas of Noxzema contain linseed oil, an ingredient that is used for skin healing and skin soothing, to treat eczema, acne and other skin conditions.
The newer product also contains soybean oil, which has linoleic acid (a fatty acid) and ferulic acid (a plant-based antioxidant) to protect skin from UV sun exposure, and to prevent wrinkles and premature aging. The plain skin cream seems to be better for oily or acne-prone skin. Those with dry and sensitive skin often, although not always, find that it further dries out the skin.
There have been variations of Noxzema products through the years. Currently, there are Classic Clean products that include a jar containing a formula close to the original cleansing cream, the deep cleansing cream in a pump bottle and a moisturizing cleansing cream. There's also an Ultimate Clean line, which includes, it comes as no surprise, an anti-blemish scrub and anti-blemish pads.
Some people may feel, though, that there's nothing like the original