Hormone Creams, Oils and Serums

Late in 1931, Helena Rubinstein announced to her American clients that she had “just returned from Paris to personally introduce her new hormone preparations for the regeneration of skin youth”. She extended an invitation to them to come to her New York salon where she would advise them on the use of her Hormone Twin Youthifiers, a day cream (Twin 1) and a night cream (Twin 2).

Two unique, biological creams—the Hormone Twins supply in assimilable form, actual youth-hormones: stimulators and rebuilders of new, young skin cells.
The most amazing results in recreated beauty are being achieved with these dual creams. For lines, wrinkles and weather-beaten, aging skins, the Hormone Twin Youthifiers give the most gratifying results, building up starved, undernourished tissues, correcting wrinkles, crowsfeet, sallowness, revitalizing the tissues.
For younger skins—prematurely worn, suffering from the tension of nerve strain and fatigue the Hormone Twin Youthifiers prove a quick pick-me-up, overcoming minor flaws and keeping the skin vibrant with youth, exquisitely clear, always at the peak of its youthful perfection!
Each cream may be used alone—the Day Cream as a quick rejuvenating treatment, the Night Cream or Feeder to be absorbed deep into the skin layers, stimulating the processes by which the skin renews its youth.
Together, both creams work in undisturbed, united harmony—reviving the beauty of your skin, correcting every flaw, developing new and lasting loveliness.

(Rubinstein brochure for The Hormone Twins, 1932)

Also see the company booklet: Rubinstein: The Hormone Twins

Elizabeth Arden quickly followed Helena Rubinstein into this market. By 1934, she was selling Ardena Gland Cream even though she developed a skin rash after testing a protoype on herself (Woodhead, 2003).


Above: An image from a 1934 Femina article on hormone beauty treatments. The hormone in the ampule is applied in a transparent face mask.

First hormone cream

According to Florence Wall, Helena Rubinstein was not the first to sell a hormone cream in the American market. According to Wall that took place in 1927 but the product “was not a success” (Wall, 1961, p. 124). Wall did not provide any details about the 1927 cream but she was probably referring to Amor Skin, developed by the German company Opterapia. The company had subsidiaries or offices in Berlin, Paris, Milan and New York.

Amor Skin was not an estrogenic cream but rather claimed to contain glandular secretions from a species of turtle – although lizards also get an occasional mentions in advertorials. Its primary ingredient was probably turtle oil but the product may have been supplemented with vitamins or extracts from turtle glands. The likely supplier of the biological material was Dr. Kurt Richter GmbH, a Berlin company established in 1926 that specialised in the production of biologicals (Personal communication, 2017).

Amor skin packaging

Above: Amor Skin was packaged and sealed in Germany and sold in a reproduction Pompeian lamp for US$16.50 (single strength) or US$25.00 (double strength). By comparison, Helena Rubinstein’s Twin Hormone Youthifiers retailed for US$10.00.

The “upper crust” of American society has known of this marvelous rejuvenating agent for the past several years. Due to the difficulty in securing the proper ingredients the prices was prohibitive for anyone except those who possessed considerable means. Through a fortunate discovery of other sources of supply it is now possible for all of us to take advantage of this remarkable REJUVENATING salve which restores the fresh, youthful, elasticity and smooth unwrinkled tension of the skin. Most of us have noticed either in ourselves or our friends that after, say 25 years of age, our skin does not have quite the dewey freshness of our teens and news of anything that will restore this texture will interest the average woman. Amor Skin is obtained from the areolar tissue of giant lizards and turtles who not only live for centuries, but whose use as a food is considered in some countries to be conducive to the prolongation of life. They also possess truly wonderful regenerative qualities in cases of injury to their shell or the loss of entire limbs or extremities. The tissues of these animals must therefore undoubtedly possess a constructive and regenerative capacity far in excess of the average. The best guarantee of the success of results of Amor Skin is that physicians endorse it for their patients.

(El Paso Evening Post, 1928, p. 28)

1932 Amor Skin

Above: 1932 Amor Skin.

The German operations of Opterapia and its affiliates suffered during the Second World War. The product reappeared in the United States in 1946 but by then there were numerous hormone oils, creams and lotions on the market.

Early evidence

It is not clear why estrogenic hormones were first used in skin creams. Peck and Klarmann give the following story as a reason:

Women filling ampoules with oestrogens for intramuscular injections who had frequent contact with the oil-suspended hormones noted that a change in the appearance of the skin on the dorsum of their hands gradually occurred after months of such contact. It seemed that the signs of ageing, such as wrinkling, tended to disappear and the backs of their hands, especially in older women assumed a more youthful appearance. After extensive clinical experimentation (with the hormone-free oil as a control) it was concluded by the observers that the antiwrinkling effects on the skin must have been due primarily to the hormones.

(Peck & Klarmann, 1954, p. 159)

This all sounds very plausible but Peck and Klarmann place this event at about 1936, well after Helena Rubinstein introduced her Hormone Twins into the United States.

In her frequent trips to Europe, Rubinstein was always on the lookout for new ‘youthifying’ treatments. For example, she followed the work of Dr. Serge Voronoff [1866-1951] and his research in Paris with ape testicular transplants, suggesting that she had studied with him and experimented with monkey gland serum herself.

See also: Rubinstein and the Rejuvenationists

Rubinstein would also have followed German, English and American studies in the use of estrogens and was probably only held back from using them before 1930 by the lack of commercial supplies. The Hormone Twin Youthifiers were the first in a long list of cosmetics containing sex hormones introduced by her and others over the next thirty years or so.


Most hormone cosmetic creams produced up until the 1960s that actually contained estrogens – rather than skin extracts, dried glands, placenta or other materials – consisted of estrone, estradiol and estriol, or equilin and equilenin if the estrogens were taken from the urine of pregnant mares. In general it was found that incorporating the hormones into a water-in-oil emulsion worked best as this allowed for a “slow uniform absorption of the estrogenic principle” (deNavarre, 1975, p. 628) or were incorporated into an oil base. Rubinstein sold both types.

1936 Manufacture of estrone

Above: 1936 Manufacturing estrone at the Organon Pharmaceutical Factory in Oss, Holland. Organon began producing female sex hormones in 1925 (Oudshoorn, 1994).

In addition to ‘natural estrogens’ some hormone creams used synthetic compounds with estrogenic effects such as diethylstilbestrol (DES, also spelt diethylstilboestrol). This synthetic non-steroidal estrogen was first synthesised in 1938 and was cheaper than natural estrogens, in part because it was not patented. It was also about three times more powerful.

Hormones were also combined with other biologicals such as vitamins or turtle oil, as for example in the Up-To-Date Cosmetic Company’s Estro-Turtle Hormone Cream which went on sale in the United States in the late 1940s.

See also: Turtle Oil and Vitamin Creams

Early regulation in the United States

Rubinstein introduced the Hormone Twin Youthifiers into the United States well before the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FD&CA) was enacted there and her hormone preparations were therefore subject to few restrictions during the 1930s. After 1938, the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA), who were charged with administering the FD&CA after 1938, showed a good deal of interest in hormone creams as they crossed the line between drugs and cosmetics. However, as there appeared to be some benefits in using the creams, the FDA was prepared to allow them as long as there was no evidence that they might cause trouble.

In the United States, the “official” position of the Federal Security Agency (Food and Drug Administration) is given in a letter dated 26 October 1949, addressed to deNavarre (Amer. Perfum., April 1950. P. 289) from which it appears that the Food and Drug Administration:
1. whilst they were skeptical of the ability of these creams to accomplish the results promised, were not in a position to disprove their claims;
2. did not look favourably upon the distribution of these creams for lay use (because of definite information concerning the ultimate effect of continued use of these creams), but possessed no conclusive evidence that harm had resulted from the use of creams containing the amounts of estrogens found in these creams then on the market.

(Harry, 1955, pp. 99-100)

Whilst the FDA would allow over-the-counter (OTC) hormone creams to remain on the market, they placed limits on the levels of estrogen allowed in these cosmetics. The FDA was concerned that the hormones in OTC skin creams did not enter the blood stream where they could be transported to other parts of the body with unknown effects.

Scientific research indicated that the absorption of estrogens by the skin from a cream was less than 40 per cent. So, as long as the concentration of estrogens in a cream remained low, they did not appear to enter the blood stream and their action remained localised or ‘cosmetic’, i.e., only effected the skin. The FDA appears to have settled on 10,000 International Units (I.U.) of estrogens per ounce as an acceptable amount for hormone creams, as long as the amount used was no greater than 2 ounces per month. This limit was supposed to ensure that a user would have a maximum exposure of 670 I.U. of estrogens per day. In practice it did not.

It is worth noting that L. Leichner – the makers of greasepaints and other cosmetics – who began selling Beauty Hormones before Helena Rubinstein put her Twin Youthifiers on the market, agreed with the idea that it was difficult to absorb hormones from skin creams and supplied their beauty hormones as tablets not cosmetics.

1931 Leichner Beauty Hormones

Above: 1931 Leichner Beauty Hormones. “As it is impossible to administer Hormone preparations to the tissues in the usual form of cosmetics, Leichner Beauty Hormones are supplied in tablets, one tablet should be taken in a little water twice daily, morning and evening.”

The main concern of the FDA was cancer and if estrogens had been shown to be harmful the FDA would have withdrawn them from the market no matter what the concentration. However, research of the time suggested that any link between OTC hormone creams and cancer would be remote as long as the hormones were not in high enough concentrations to enter the blood stream and circulate to other parts of the body, i.e., they were below the 10,000 I.U. per ounce limit.

1. It is the consensus of opinion among experience observers that cosmetic hormone creams with a maximum potency of 10,000 I.U. per ounce (31 g.) of vehicle, if used in the manner by the informed manufacturer, are free from systemic effects. It is also established that to date there has been no evidence of precancerous or cancerous changes in the skin resulting from the use of these hormone cosmetics over a period of several years.
2. There is definite support for the anti-wrinkling effect produced by the use of hormone cosmetics based on (a) the thickening of the epidermis, (b) plumping of the collagen fibers.
3. The anti-wrinkling action of hormone creams is more noticeable in older age-groups.

(Peck & Klarmann, 1949, p. 165)

The amount of estrogens present in American OTC hormone creams differed widely but most fell below 10,000 I.U. per ounce limit that the FDA used as a safe measure. Some examples are given below:

•   Nu-Youth Hormone Day or Night Cream (1,500 I.U. estrogens)
•   Second Youth Estrogenic Hormone Cream (7,500 I.U. estrogens)
•   Bette Knowlton Special Formula Cream (50,000 I.U. estrogens)
•   Revlon White Sable Hormone Liquid Cleansing Creme (6,000 I.U. estrogens)
•   Allure Fountain of Youth Wrinkleproof Cream (7,500 I.U. estrogens)
•   Dorothy Gray Cellogen Cream (10,000 I.U. estrogens)

When products exceeded the 10,000 I.U. per ounce the FDA usually confiscated them. In 1951, the FDA seized 223 one-ounce bottles of Hormonex Beauty Serum on the grounds that it could cause injury to health, as the amount of hormone applied was well over the accepted limit. The serum contained 150,000 I.U. of estrogens per ounce with directions indicating that the dosage would be 1,500 I.U. per day. Hormonex subsequently dropped the amount of estrogens in their beauty serum to 33,000 I.U. per ounce. This was still higher than 10,000 I.U. per ounce but as they stipulated a recommended daily dosage of 300 I.U. per day – which was well below the agreed threshold value for a systemic effect – they overcame the objections of the FDA and remained on the market.

In 1952, the FDA also seized and destroyed 8 jars of Bette Knowlton Special Formula Cream on the grounds that it was dangerous to health. Samples taken indicated it contained 54,000 I.U. (5.4 mg) of estrogen per ounce, again well over the 10,000 limit. The directions for use meant that the daily application would be 1,800 I.U. of estrogen, leading to the possibility that the hormone would enter the blood stream.

Helena Rubinstein’s original Hormone Twins may have breached the FDA’s hormone limits and this may have may been the reason for Rubinstein introducing a new hormone cream, Tree of Life, in 1956.

The FDA also confiscated products under the Misbranding Section 502(a) of the FD&CA. Here the charge was that claims made for the product could not be supported. This could be because the claims were overly exaggerated or because the hormone levels were so low that the FDA could not see how they could support the claims made for the product.

Although the terms of the FD&CA were less than perfect, the United States had the strongest cosmetic regulations at the time. The United Kingdom for example had nothing similar and it was fortunate that most of the hormone creams available there were American in origin.

In America the quantity of œstrogen included in hormone preparations is strictly controlled, by the Federal Food and Drug Administration, at 10.000 I.U. (International Units) per oz.—this ‘safety figure’ having been arrived at after extensive research. The lowest quantity considered effective is 7,500 I.U. per oz. Although no control exists in Great Britain, few, if any, beauty preparations are made with more than 10,000 I.U. per oz. Many of the best known makes of hormone cream are, of course, American in origin, and are formulated accordingly. Many users claim handsomely rewarding results, including a more moist and smoother skin with fresher colour due to improved capillary flow. Other users report no noticeable difference in their complexions.

(Allen, 1961, p. 244)

Progesterone and pregnenolone

By the late 1950s the hormone cream market was looking fairly crowded. Most of the majors had products containing estrogenic hormones for sale. Dorothy Gray had released Cellogen, Remoldine and Satura, Elizabeth Arden had Joie de Vivre and even Max Factor had weighed in with Cup of Youth in 1957, sold in a milk-white goblet.

In 1959, Helena Rubinstein launched her Ultra Feminine range of hormone products including Ultra Feminine Face Cream which contained 5 mg of progesterone as well as 10,000 I.U. of estrogenic hormones. Revlon followed, in 1961, with Eterna 27 containing 0.5 per cent pregnenolone acetate – an ester of the sex hormone precursor pregnenolone – trademarked as Progenitin. Both products were protected by patents.

These two night creams used different advertising approaches. Although both stressed their scientific development and youthful benefits, the tone of Rubinstein’s advertising copy was drug-like whereas Revlon’s was more cosmetic. Rubinstein made physiological claims including that the skin “becomes soft, supple, protected” and that skin cells “are able to hold maximum moisture again—that all-important process that makes the skin look young. Aging lines smooth out because the skin surface now rests on a firm, full pillow of moisture-plumped cells”. Revlon on the other hand only made cosmetic claims for their product. Advertising copy for Eterna 27 stated that the product had “no hormone activity … no hormone effects” and only claimed that the skin would “look more youthful and definitely smoother”. These were visual/cosmetic not physiological claims.

The decision by Revlon to market Eterna 27 using language deemed appropriate for a cosmetic rather than a drug can perhaps serve as a marker of the beginning of the end for OTC hormone creams. From now on the regulatory landscape, both in the United States and elsewhere, would progressively turn against them. Hostility to the use of hormones in OTC products was, in part, driven by the improved scientific understanding that followed the introduction of the contraceptive pill in 1960 and the increased use of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT).

The complete ban on the use of hormones or hormone precursors in OTC products by the European Economic Community (EEC) and elsewhere was not mirrored by similar legislation in the United States. However, the costs associated with FDA compliance and labeling requirements, and lack of access to European and other markets would have been strong disincentives to global cosmetic corporations. They moved on to less regulated compounds like phytosterols and other so-called bio-identical estrogens. Of all the hormone creams and oils produced by the majors that have been mentioned here, only Revlon’s Eterna 27 remains on the market.

See also: Placental Creams and Serums

Updated: 15th November 2017


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