Surface Tensions: The Underlying Truths of Skincare Advertising

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Skincare ads from the past can be very uncomfortable to witness against the backdrop of today’s social norms. They can be overtly sexist, racist and misogynous, with women portrayed as stereotypical housewives and the ideal beauty often focused on pleasing the opposite sex.

Others are fraught with health risks due to phoney claims. So, have we cosigned all that kind of advertising to history, and can we now complacently rest on our laurels? Or, has marketing in the skincare industry become so sophisticated that it’s still capable of manipulating us and masking a whole host of untruths?

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Enjoy a quick journey through the evolution of skincare advertising as we examine how the industry has developed up to the present day.

The Early Years: Promise and Peril

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, American society cherished a notion of “natural” beauty, often viewing the use of cosmetics to achieve a flawless, white complexion as deceitful or improper. The common belief was that a healthy complexion should be a result of wholesome living and moral conduct rather than cosmetic enhancement. The Marketing of many beauty products focussed on “invisibility” to align with this moral stance against artificial beauty.

However, despite these societal norms, many women discreetly used skincare products. Driven by the societal and economic benefits associated with a clear, fair complexion, they resorted to products containing dangerous substances like lead, mercury and arsenic. Their goal was to attain the idealised beauty standard of the era. 

Despite warnings from medical professionals and the media about the risks of cosmetic use, the assurances of safety from product manufacturers often held sway over public opinion.

Brands like Dr James P. Campbell and Madame A. Ruppert famously advertised products like ‘Safe Arsenic Complexion Wafers’ and ‘World Renowned Face Bleach‘. These ads reflect a disturbing period when safety was often sidelined for beauty.

A Global Revolution: Cosmetic Advertising in the 1920s and 1930s

The 1920s and 1930s marked an era of dramatic change in cosmetic advertising, not just in the United States but across the globe. This period witnessed a shift from discreet to bold cosmetic usage, influenced by cultural movements, economic factors and technological advancements in various parts of the world.

Ads, however, often perpetuated a narrow beauty standard, primarily catering to young, Caucasian women. The infamous ‘White Witch for the Skin‘ and ‘Peggy Page Whitening Balm‘ are examples of products that not only promoted a homogenised beauty ideal but also contained harmful ingredients.

Dr James P. Campbell’s Safe Arsenic Complexion Wafers. Advertisements for these wafers, which contained arsenic, claimed they could achieve a pale, clear complexion. Arsenic was erroneously considered safe and effective for skin enhancement at the time. Credit: National Museum of American History

The 1930s further solidified Hollywood’s influence on beauty standards, with cosmetic brands frequently using film stars in their advertising campaigns.

Across the Atlantic, Europe was experiencing its unique beauty revolution. Paris, the fashion capital, became a significant influencer in beauty trends. Brands like Chanel introduced products that defined elegance and sophistication.

The 1920s saw the launch of Chanel No. 5, a fragrance that epitomises the glamour of the era. European advertising during this period reflected a blend of luxury and artistic flair, often employing sophisticated imagery and high-fashion associations.


The Great Depression of the 1930s had a global impact, influencing consumer behaviour and advertising strategies worldwide. Cosmetic companies, both in the US and Europe, responded by offering more affordable products.

The advertising of this era often portrayed cosmetics as an accessible luxury, a small indulgence in challenging times.

Tokalon Biocel Skinfood, UK, 1939

The 1940s and 50s

In the 1940s, skincare advertising in the UK reflected wartime practicality. Products like Pond’s Cold Cream, although launched decades before, were essential for their multifunctionality. Red lipsticks, such as Elizabeth Arden’s Montezuma Red – designed to match the red on the uniforms of the U.S. Marine Corps women’s reserve – symbolised strength and resilience.

The Mid-Century Shift: Glamour and Reinvention

Post World War II, the skincare industry experienced a boom. This era saw the rise of iconic brands like Estée Lauder and Elizabeth Arden, whose advertising leaned heavily on glamour and luxury.

This period also marked a significant shift in ingredient transparency and safety, with the gradual phasing out of harmful substances.

Print ads in glossy magazines featured glamorous models and film stars, showcasing the alleged transformative power of skincare products. This decade also marked the rise of television advertising, with brands taking advantage of this new medium to showcase the glamour and sophistication of their products to a wider audience.

An Obsession with Skin Colour: A Century of Contradictions

The 1920s marked a complex shift in beauty standards, with a light summer tan becoming fashionable, symbolising affluence and outdoor leisure. Cosmetic companies responded with darker face powders, catering to this trend while also evoking exoticism. Despite this, the skincare industry continued to produce skin lighteners, reflecting the era’s contradictory beauty ideals.

By the 1960s, societal movements like Civil Rights and Black is Beautiful fostered a gradual acceptance of darker skin tones, leading to the popularity of bronzers and tanning lotions for a darker appearance across genders.

Pond’s Angel Face Complete Compact Makeup – 1961

Yet, the issue of altering skin colour remains contentious in cosmetic advertising, exemplified by the 2019 controversy surrounding GlutaMAX in the Philippines. The brand’s ad, suggesting that fairer skin leads to societal advantages, sparked a widespread backlash for perpetuating colourism. This highlighted the enduring challenges in changing beauty standards and societal biases in cosmetics.

Mercury Madness

It may come as a surprise to learn that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows very small amounts of mercury compounds in cosmetics as preservatives in eye area products.

However, a woman in Minnesota permanently lost part of her vision in 2022. She accidentally put her entire family in danger as a result of mercury poisoning. The most likely sources were beauty creams containing high levels of the toxic chemical.

She admitted using skin-whitening beauty creams from abroad. Two other beauty products she bought at a local market also contained high levels of mercury. Although there was no skin-whitening label on one of these, its ingredients were typical of those used for the purpose of skin-whitening.

Campaigners against colourism and the physical harm skin-whitening products can do are vocal in their concern. They’re referring to the use of mercury-laden creams in certain communities of colour as a “public health crisis.” They want to see better education about the dangers involved and stricter law enforcement.

But bans can only do so much. Unchecked online purchases and the unlawful import of skincare products that make a whole host of unchecked claims are rife. Some are also highly dangerous.

In 2022, the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI) banned 17 skin whitening creams containing staggeringly high levels of mercury and hydroquinone. 14 came from Pakistan. The potential for injury or even death is clear.

The 1960s and Beyond

Since the mid-20th century, skincare advertising has profoundly influenced and often distorted societal perceptions of beauty. Initially mirroring contemporary trends and ideals, advertisements evolved into potent instruments for shaping public opinion and individual self-concepts. The rise of the digital age and social media further amplified these messages, embedding commercialised beauty ideals into everyday life.

Adverts, while purporting to empower and care for the self, have exploited personal insecurities by promoting idealised beauty standards and linking skincare with social status and success. A study by Tiggemann and Slater (2014) in the International Journal of Eating Disorders explores the impact of such advertising on body image concerns among adolescent girls. It highlights how exposure to idealised images in media can contribute to body dissatisfaction and lead to unrealistic beauty expectations. This research underscores the profound effect of skincare advertising on consumer perceptions and self-esteem.

The feminist movement contributed to shifting away from stereotypical portrayals during the 1960s and 1970s, yet researchers argue that little has changed since. Some campaigns, like Dove’s Real Beauty Pledge launched in 2004, have bucked this trend by celebrating diverse appearances, irrespective of shape, size, or colour. Additionally, movements like #MeToo could potentially impact skincare advertising significantly.

Recent shifts towards inclusivity and diversity in skincare advertising are positive, but they exist alongside continued commercial manipulation. This complex dynamic prompts critical reflection on the true origins of our beauty ideals – are they authentic expressions of individual preference, or the result of an industry skilled in capitalising on and perpetuating societal insecurities?

Back to the Future

Social media presents new challenges in the realm of skincare advertising. It allows claims about skincare products to gain an appearance of authority without adequate checks. Influencers, often lacking formal credentials, can command vast audiences, rivalling the most popular TV programmes of the 1960s and 1970s. When these influencers recommend a skincare product, the product’s integrity may not be their top priority, leading followers to make uninformed purchases.

Advancements in AI have made it possible to alter appearances digitally, contributing to an ever-evolving beauty ideal. This has coincided with a surge in interest in plastic surgery among Millennials and Generation X, reflecting a shift in beauty aspirations. Future generations might look back at today’s trends with the same incredulity we reserve for skincare ads from half a century ago.

The Way Forward

While today’s skincare advertising may not be as overtly jarring as it was a hundred years ago, it still harbours harmful ingredients and questionable attitudes. As we move forward, there is a growing imperative for transparency, authenticity. There needs to be a commitment to genuinely beneficial practices in the skincare industry. 

The challenge lies in balancing commercial interests with ethical responsibility and in cultivating a beauty narrative that uplifts rather than undermines. We need to become more discerning and vocal, the industry must evolve to meet not only our aesthetic needs but also our values, fostering a skincare culture that is inclusive and honest.

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