What’s the deal with cold cream?

If you’re anything like me, you hear the words “cold cream” and think about women from back in the day slathering a thick cream on their faces and necks while sitting at their vanities with curlers in their hair. It’s a product from a bygone era. Or is it?

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I keep getting ads for Ponds Cold Cream on my Facebook and Pinterest feeds, and initially I thought “How old do they think I am?” but then I thought about some of the things I search for online and … yeah, okay. But it got me to thinking – what the heck even is cold cream?

And, because I’m all about excessive amounts of research about things that don’t matter, I spent entirely too long researching the history of cold cream, the various recipes used through the ages, and why it’s still around today. So if skincare isn’t really your jam, feel free to take your leave now.

As it turns out, cold cream is believed to be invented by Galen. If you don’t know who Galen is, you’re about to. He’s the father of medicine (move over, Hippocrates), personal doctor to both the emperors and the gladiators of ancient Rome, and, I would argue, the most influential medical mind in all of antiquity. It’s because of him that bloodletting (which was common practice in some parts of Egypt and Greece from well before Galen’s time) spread to the entirety of the Roman empire. All of Europe relied on his descriptions of anatomy and physiology (from both the dissection and vivisection of monkeys and pigs – if you don’t know what vivisection is, you really don’t want to know) until the mid-1500s when human dissections became… well, not acceptable, but they happened. His influence over the theories and practice of medicine in Europe, as well as the Byzantine (eastern Europe) and Arabic worlds were seen for well over over 1400 years after his death. That’s really something.

He lived much of his life fearing and dodging poisoners and assassins because his policy was, “In order to diagnose, one must observe and reason.” Sounds simple enough, but in his day most doctors were still diagnosing their patients by cutting open a goat, because I guess that was a thing. If you can believe it, apparently he made the other doctors look like buffoons. I can’t imagine why. He also pioneered cataract surgery, using a method similar to the modern procedure (albeit less sterile and precise, so the outcomes were a bit sketchy).

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He probably didn’t actually look like this.

If you can’t tell, I’m a big fan. Sure, he’s also probably responsible for the death of untold numbers of people (Really, Galen? Bloodletting?), but he also created “medicine” rather than the “medical” mysticism that was practiced up until his time.

Now, I wouldn’t recommend something just because Galen did it (For real, though – why did anyone think bloodletting was helpful?), but it certainly makes it more interesting. Ponds should make it part of their advertising campaign – Ponds Cold Cream: it was good enough for a Roman emperor, and now you can have it for only $11.99!

So anyway, this was not actually supposed to be a post about Galen, although I could probably talk about him longer. This is about cold cream, and why and whether it does what it claims to do.

What is it?

Cold cream is, simply put a water-in-oil (w/o) emulsion. This means that you take water, and blend it into oil until it doesn’t separate anymore. Beeswax is typically used to hold it all together (as you can imagine, oil and water aren’t too fond of each other).

Galen’s recipe used rose water, olive oil, and beeswax. His directions were to melt the wax with the oil, heat the water, and then mix it together until it cooled, became white, and did not separate. This apparently took an HOUR. Seriously. It takes an hour of continuous mixing by hand to make this stuff. I’m not doing that.

This same basic recipe was used from Galen’s time (roughly 200 A.D.) until the early 1800s. Around this time, almond oil became more common than olive oil (though I’m sure it depended where you lived), and spermaceti became a common additive. That’s something found in a sperm whale’s head that has both oil and wax qualities. And it still required excessive amounts of mixing to get everything to stay together. Obviously I’m not doing that.

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First off, gross. Secondly, I think I read somewhere that you can get 500 gallons of spermaceti from a single whale? That can’t be right…

In the late 1800s, the various uses of petroleum were discovered. Mineral oil and petrolatum (aka Vaseline) were found to be good replacements for the olive oil, almond oil, and spermaceti (thank god). They also extend the shelf life of the finished product, because they don’t need a preservative to stop them from going rancid. The downside – I don’t know about you, but petrolatum makes me feel slimy.

Also in the 1800s, borax was added to most cold cream recipes. This was a real game changer. It acts as a preservative, and *drum roll* chemically acts as an emulsifier. It actually helps the oil and water “stick” to each other (for lack of a better word), meaning you DON’T HAVE TO MIX IT FOR AN HOUR.

“But isn’t borax toxic?” Ehhhhhhhh, yes, but no. Like anything, the dose makes the poison. Water is toxic if you drink enough of it. I’m not talking about drowning – I mean you can literally die if you drink too much water, which is why I’m not going to chance it. Better safe than sorry. (I’m only kind of kidding there – I don’t drink water, but that’s only because I find the flavor to be nauseating. It’s a wonder I’m still alive). Borax is very toxic if you eat it undiluted (only a couple of teaspoons will kill a child – not cool), but small amounts are found in pretty much all of our food, as it’s a naturally occurring compound.

I did waaaay too much research on this topic, but basically if you keep your borax concentration under 5% it’s perfectly safe for cosmetic use, though it’s not recommended to apply it to children under 3, or on any open cuts or burns. Skin is good, bloodstream is bad.

What does it do?

So that’s cool and all, but… why? I talked in my last post about why detergent is bad for your skin. And, yes, all of your “soap” is probably partially or completely a detergent. Detergent is great for laundry and dishes, because it gets rid of ALL the oil with minimal agitation and rinsing (yay, science!), but bad for skin, because SKIN NEEDS OIL. So how can you get the dirt, excess oil, and makeup off without stripping off your protective, antibacterial, and oh-so-necessary-to-stay-healthy oil layer? Simple. With more oil.

Dirt sticks to oil. Don’t believe me? Put a thin layer of vegetable oil on a small spot on your counter and check it out the next day. I guarantee you it’ll have visible dust, while the rest of your counter will look the same as it did before. And, since oil doesn’t mix with water, you can’t just wash it off. If you can get your mits on some real soap (or go crazy and make your own), that’ll be a step in the right direction. Oooorrrr, hear me out here, you can slather your face in more oil (lightened up with some cleansing water, held together and made easy to handle by the addition of some wax), rub it in to get it to mix with your own surface oil/dirt/makeup, and then wipe it off with a tissue. Voila. Clean.

And, bonus, any excess oil from your cold cream serves as a great moisturizer. And the wax helps to lock in that moisture. So not only are you clean, you’re also moisturized and baby soft. I’ve been using mine for a couple of weeks, and I highly recommend it.

My cold cream recipe:

  • 59% fractionated coconut oil
  • 32% rosewater
  • 8% beeswax
  • 1% borax

Heat the coconut oil and the beeswax until the wax melts. Heat the water to just before boiling (you don’t want the wax to solidify when the water hits it). Mix the borax in the water until it’s dissolved. Slowly pour the borax/water into the oil/wax while whisking (or use an immersion blender if you have one). Mix until it turns white and is combined. Let it cool, and stir periodically to keep it combined and creamy. When it’s cool, feel free to add a few drops of essential oil to make it smell pretty.

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