Noxzema: Is This Old Beauty Staple Good for Your Skin?

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 the product for gorgeous, smooth skin? 

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Noxzema: A Beauty Staple for More Than 100 Years

Vintage Noxzema jars
Jars of Noxzema through the years. Photo: Courtesy of Noxzema

Growing up, I remember there was always a jar of Noxzema cold cream in the bathroom. Whenever I got a pimple, usually on my forehead (thanks to the greasy hair pomades I used to try to get my bangs to lay flat) all I had to do was put a dot of Noxzema on the pimple overnight and in the morning it was gone!

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My First Facial Mask

Noxzema 100th birthday cake
What could be better than a jar of Noxzema? A Noxzema jar made of cake!. Photo: Gerrie Summers

Noxzema was probably also my first facial mask. I'd put it all over my face at night. It scared my little brother. I think he might have actually screamed. I looked like a zombie. But I 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 (yep, I let it dry and sit on the face overnight), because I'd wake up, rinse it off and have nice smooth and clear skin in the morning.

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A Sunburn Remedy

Vintage Noxema jar
An old jar of "Greaseless" Noxzema Skin Cream. Photo: Courtesy of Noxzema

Noxzema was developed in 1914. Dr. George A. Bunting has always been credited as the inventor, but more recently Maryland druggist Francis J. Townsend has been named as 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 "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—and apparently for a certain common skin condition. 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 clever combination of No-x-zema  (No Eczema) or it might have been purposely mispronounced as a play on the customer’s words—knocks-zema. Maybe it was both. What isn’t in dispute, is that Bunting made this simple cream into a cosmetics success story.

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Feel It Heal

Vintage Noxzema jar
Noxzema "Greaseless" and "Medicated" Skin Cream. Photo: Courtesy of Noxzema

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, especially in soaps. It also acts as an exfoliant and removes dead skin cells. (It’s still being used today for deep chemical peels.)  There is some concern about this ingredient, though. It was found that ingesting carbolic acid causes paralysis, convulsions, and respiratory failure, but it is also believed that it can cause fatal poisoning through skin absorption.

Clove oil is also an antiseptic and has antimicrobial properties. It is used to improve sagging skin, wrinkles, acne, and for skin rejuvenation. (Note: undiluted it causes 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. 

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The Cooling Core

Old Noxzema jar
A vintage 25 cent jar of Noxzema. Photo: Courtesy of Noxzema

Camphor is made by distilling the bark and wood of the camphor tree or chemically synthesized. It’s an ingredient often found in products for cold sores, insect bites and minor skin burns to reduce pain and itching. It is FDA-approved for use on the skin to help ease itchiness or irritation, but only what the FDA considers a safe amount, which is between 3 - 11% concentrations. Used undiluted or in higher concentrations it causes irritation and even poisoning and potential liver damage.

Menthol is derived from peppermint or eucalyptus plants or synthetically made. It's often used in after sun creams to relieve pain. It also improves blood flow, which when used in lip balms and glosses, gives a plumping effect. Like camphor, it stimulates nerve endings giving the skin the sensation that it is cooling off.

Eucalyptus also has antiseptic and antibacterial properties and acts as a germicide and is 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 like camphor, has a cooling sensation on the skin.

It's understandable why it was so popular as a sunburn remedy.  As it turns out, that wasn't the only benefit.

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Complexion Cold Cream

Vintage Noxzema
Noxzema vintage boudoir size jar. Photo: Courtesy of Noxzema

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 has a cooling sensation because it stimulates nerve endings, which relieves pain and itching sensations. Its use for eczema is debatable. Both camphor and menthol, though cooling, can cause dryness and irritate the skin of some individuals. The manufacturer states that the product has not been tested as a treatment for eczema and doesn't make this claim.

Is Noxzema Good for Acne?

The eucalyptus in Noxzema helps cleanse pores and has astringent properties to heal acne and dry up pimples. Camphor is used 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 (such as 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 in low concentrations, considered safe by the FDA.

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.  

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Still a Classic

Noxzema products
Modern Noxzema skin care line. Photo: Noxzema

Newer formulas contain linseed oil, an ingredient that is used for skin healing and skin soothing, to treat eczema, acne and other skin conditions.  

Noxzema 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 might 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, as well as an Ultimate Clean line that includes, it comes as no surprise, an anti-blemish scrub and anti-blemish pads.

But there's nothing like the original.