Physical therapists use heat to relieve disorders like rheumatism and arthritis, and to make tissue more ‘pliable’ before it is massaged, stretched or otherwise manipulated. During the First World War, a new heat treatment was introduced that immersed parts or all of the body in melted paraffin wax. Although it was messier and more costly than a simple bath of hot water it was rapidly adopted by physical therapists because it had some advantages over the use of water alone.
The most important advantage paraffin had over water was in the way that it retained and conducted heat. If you immerse your hand in hot water bath and a paraffin bath of the same temperature, the water bath feels hotter than the paraffin bath. In addition to feeling more comfortable, the coat of wax also acts like a blanket trapping the heat at the surface of the skin after the wax is applied. Using paraffin instead of water also avoids the shrivelled appearance skin gets after being immersed for a long period in a water bath, which means the skin is in a much better condition for any subsequent massage.
Paraffin wax treatments began during the First World War when the French physician Edmond Barthe de Sandfort (1853-1918) developed a burn treatment he referred to as ‘keritherapy’. This used a patented preparation called ‘ambrine’ – which was widely believed to be made from paraffin wax and oil of amber resin.
Given that the treatment appeared to be effective but the composition of ‘ambrine’ was patented, other surgeons came up with their own formulae, the best known of which was called No. 7 paraffin made from hard paraffin (67%), soft paraffin (25%), olive oil (5%), eucalyptus oil (2%) and resorcin (1%) (British Journal of Nursing, 1917, p. 167)
As well as being used to treat burns, paraffin was also found to be helpful for rheumatism, joint pain, and other assorted skin complaints so by the end of the war medical treatments that covered part or all of the body in paraffin wax were becoming increasingly common.
The wax bath is a new idea in medicine and is recommended as a curative measure in a number of ailments, such as rheumatism, various disturbances resulting in skin troubles, inflamed and painful joints, and so forth. Incredible as it may seem, it is possible to pour boiling wax on any part of the human body without causing burns.
… The patient who is to receive a paraffin wax bath is placed in a wicker basket so built that his head is slightly raised. The basket is lined with a material impervious to wax. When all is ready the hot wax is poured over the patient so that his entire body is coated with it, or the part which is to be specially treated. When the wax cools, the patient looks as if he were covered with a plaster cast. After the wax has been poured on, the patient is covered carefully with a quilt, and remains in his wax bath just as long as the physician deems it necessary to bring about relief.
Paraffin is applied to the body in two main ways. Extremities like hands and feet that can be immersed in a small paraffin bath are repeatedly dipped into the paraffin until a sufficient thickness of wax is built up. Those parts of the body that cannot be easily immersed can be coated with paraffin using a warmed paint brush, can be sprayed with paraffin using a mechanical sprayer, or have paraffin poured over them from a jug or ladle. The paraffin is normally left on for between 10 and 30 minutes during which time the client is normally wrapped in foil, a blanket, or some other material to help the paraffin retain heat. After the treatment is completed the paraffin is then peeled off the skin; a process made easier if a little mineral oil has been added to the paraffin to make it more pliable.
After they were adopted by physical therapists, paraffin baths were embraced by beauty culturists but put to different uses. In Beauty Culture the two main uses of paraffin wax baths were to hydrate and soften the skin, and to contribute to weight reduction; both treatments that rely on the ability of warm paraffin to induce perspiration.
Using heat to induce perspiration has long been used to help reduce weight. Placing a client in a dry heat or vapour cabinet for a period of time induces a measurable weight loss due to dehydration. Although the ‘effectiveness’ of these treatments was primarily due to the amount of water lost, the positive result was generally explained to the client as being due to the effect of the heat on the blood circulation, body impurities or body fat rather than simple water loss.
As a paraffin ‘bath’ also induces perspiration, many beauty salons in 1930s, 40s and 50s covered clients in paraffin wax as part of a weight reduction treatment. For example, Elizabeth Arden’s clients, looking to lose some pounds or kilos, were first treated with a ‘Roller’ to whittle away ‘unwanted layers of flesh’, then covered with paraffin in an ‘Ardena Wax Bath’ and finally massaged; all treatments that were described at the time as being able to remove body fat.
You are stretched out on a couch covered with towels and a layer of grease-proof paper, and warm liquid paraffin wax is poured over you till you are coated with a layer of opaque white, like a wax image. But nobody sticks pins in you. Instead you will be covered with another sheet of paper, wrapped in a blanket, and left to simmer in a delicious warm bath that never changes its temperature. It’s not too hot, as in a Turkish bath, because your head is cooled, either by the the air from an open window, or by cold towels wrapped around your neck.
When you emerge from your cocoon, the wax peels off in long strips, the last vestiges washed away under a warm shower—and there you are, with skin white and soft as a child’s, rheumatic aches and pains charmed out of you, and a wonderful sense of well being. Now is the time to return to the battle of the bulges: the fatty spots, already worked on by the Roller, softened up and made malleable by the wax bath, will be particularly susceptible to the massage with which the full treatment is finished.
As paraffin wax could be used on specific areas it was also applied to reduce ‘unsightly flesh’ in particular spots, such as the ankles.
There is a new remedy for clumsy calves and unsightly ankles, and a new method of applying it. The remedy is hot wax, the method is spraying. One lies comfortably on a paper-covered couch and the wax is sprayed, like a warm and sticky rain, on to that too, too solid flesh. In a few minutes the wax sets into a firm shell of opaque white, in which one lies for perhaps half an hour. Under this shell the heated skin is throwing off, not only its surplus tissues of fat, but also all the impurities which lie immediately under the surface. For those whose not-so-slimness of leg consists of superfluous flesh the method should be ideal.
Another outcome of a paraffin wax treatment is a softening of the skin. As the perspiration induced by the heat cannot escape from under the wax, it hydrates the outer layers of the epidermis – the horny layer – producing a noticeable ‘plumping’ of the tissue. One way beauty culturists used this effect was to incorporate wax masks into facial treatments for dry and wrinkled skins.
First a thorough cleansing; then comes stimulating massage with nourishing cream. The creamy traces are removed with special lotion, and the warm pink wax is painted on, and left to settle while you relax, with pads over your eyes. The wax peels off afterwards like the skin of a fruit. Your face is wiped clean with another lotion; then you have Oxylation—a refreshing spray of oxygen over the face and neck. Finally, a pretty make-up with Helena Rubinstein preparations.
Paraffin wax baths were also used in manicure and pedicure treatments to soften rough hands or feet. After the nails and cuticles were treated, the forearm or foot was repeatedly dipped into a paraffin bath, wrapped, and then left for a time before it was massaged and had its nails painted. Once one limb is encased in paraffin, work then begins on the other.
The use of paraffin baths in beauty treatments has declined almost to the point of extinction. When used for weight reduction or in skin softening treatments it became clear that results were limited and short-term. When this was added to the cost, mess, time to set up, and the extended treatment times, most salons operating today would not consider them worth the trouble. Those treatments that survive are generally associated with a deluxe manicure.
Update: 3rd February 2017
Bathing in melted wax. (1917). Popular Science Monthly. 90 January-June, 578-579.
Delorme, E. (1919). Les enseignements chirurgicaux de la grande guerre. Paris: A. Maloine et Fils.
Gallant, A. (1993). Principles and techniques for the beauty specialist (3rd ed.). Cheltenham, England: Stanley Thomas.
Kovácks, R. (1949). A manual of physical therapy. Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger.
Stafford, A. M. (1926). A handbook of physio-therapy. Chicago: Medical and Surgical Publishing Company.