Day and Night Creams

Over the years a number of methods have been used to convince women to buy a range of skin-care ccosmetics, rather than stick to one that was all-purpose. One of the earliest marketing techniques used by cosmetic companies was to suggest that a cream applied during the day needed be different to one used at night.

Beauty routines

The idea of applying a skin cream overnight is an old one, in part based on the erroneous idea that the skin is more capable of repairing itself during the night than during the day.

Every woman who is wise will pay attention to the needs of her complexion at bed-time, because the night is the period when Nature is most able to repair the ravages of time and circumstance.

(Browning, 1898, p. 134)

Applying a cream in the morning, to protect the skin from exposure to the elements when venturing out, made sense and if a cream helped repair the skin then applying it more than once also seemed reasonable. The most convenient time for women to do this was during their morning and evening ablutions.

Leaving aside those special skin preparations recommended by early ‘complexionists’ for blackheads, pimples and other skin blemishes, the commonest skin cream used in late nineteenth and early twentieth century morning and evening skin-care routines was cold cream.

Rough skins, from exposure to the wind in riding, rowing, or yachting, trouble many ladies, who will be glad to know that an application of cold cream or glycerine at night, washed off with fine carbolic soap in the morning, will render them presentable at the breakfast-table, without looking like women who follow the hounds, blowzy and burned. The simplest way to obviate the bad effects of too free sun and wind, which are apt on occasion to revenge themselves for the neglect too often shown them by the fair sex, is to rub the face, throat, and arms well with cold cream or pure almond-oil before going out.

(The ugly girl papers, 1874, pp. 79-80)

The dominance of cold creams was challenged by the introduction of stearate or vanishing creams. These first appeared in the 1890s and by 1920 had became widely available.

Of all the skin creams which have been introduced during the past few years, the foremost place is undoubtedly taken by those which are variously described as Day Creams, Snows, Foams and Vanishing Creams.

(Poucher, 1926, p. 35)

As more cosmetic companies began to add a vanishing cream to their skin-care range, differences in the way the two creams were used gradually became established. Cold creams were generally employed either as a cleanser at night or to carry out a facial massage, while vanishing creams were usually applied as a skin protectant during the day and as a base for face powder.

For cleansing and massaging a cold or grease cream is a necessity.
… Pond’s Cold Cream is made of the purest ingredients, especially chosen for their softening and cleansing values. It has an oil base and is intended for night use.
… Pond’s Vanishing Cream was especially formulated to afford a constant protection and refining influence on the skin. It is quickly absorbed by the skin, and forms a fine invisible covering.

(Pond’s advertisement, 1916)

See also: Cold Creams and Vanishing Creams

In the early twentieth century – when the cosmetic market was a lot simpler than it is today – some cosmetic companies had only two creams in their skin-care range – a cold cream and a vanishing cream – and distinguished between them by calling their vanishing cream a ‘day’ cream and their cold cream a ‘night’ cream.

This simple distinction between cold/night creams and day/vanishing creams was quickly muddied as the skin-care market became more sophisticated. In the 1920s, cosmetic companies were increasingly forced to make provision for skin types – a concept developed by Beauty Culture and proselytised by salon-based firms like Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein and Dorothy Gray – and this affected how they promoted their skin creams. A good case in point can be seen by looking at the skin-care range of the Pompeian Manufacturing Company.

Pompeian Manufacturing Company

Pompeian was established with a single product, Pompeian Massage Cream. When the company introduced a cold cream in 1915, it badged it as a night cream and then called its new vanishing cream, introduced in 1917, a day cream. This meant that by 1920 Pompeian customers could massage their face with Pompeian Massage Cream, cleanse their skin with Pompeian Night Cream, and protect their skin and hold powder on their face during the day with Pompeian Day Cream.

In the 1920s, when the company made allowances for ‘dry’ and ‘oily’ skin types, Pompeian recommended that women with dry skin use Pompeian Night Cream during the day, making the distinction between night and day rather meaningless.

Pompeian Night Cream can be your best servant during the winter. Use it for cleansing—not only your face and neck, but your hands and your shoulders too, for the skin on these parts suffers the same dryness as your face, and feels the cold and severity of the soap and water bath more severely during cold weather than at any other season. It will soften it and make it more pliable.
As a powder base. A dry skin should not use a day or vanishing cream, as this kind of cream is best for an oily skin; use Pompeian Night Cream as your powder base. Apply it lightly over your cleansed skin, wipe off after it has been well distributed, and you will find it a delightful foundation for your powder. …
Pompeian Day Cream should be used every time you cleanse your face, every time you go out of doors, every time you apply your powder. If you have a jar in a convenient place it becomes a habit to use a bit of this delightful, fluffy cream every time you sit at your dressing table.
There is a slight astringent quality in this vanishing Day Cream that makes it “firm up” the little loose surface muscles in your face, and that gives your skin a smoother appearance. Pompeian Day Cream is an incomparable base for your Pompeian Beauty Powder. It forms an adhesive foundation for your powder.
Pompeian Night Cream should be used to cleanse an oily skin. It softens the natural oily secretions and dissolves their unhealthy accumulation. Use it before or after your bath—it cleanses in a way that soap and water cannot. Remove with a soft cloth and finish with an ice rub or very cold water.

(Pompeian advertisement, 1924)

See also: Pompeian Manufacturing Company

When you take skin types and other skin differences into account you can see why the larger salon-based companies – with their extensive skin-care ranges – rarely, if ever, used the words ‘day’ or ‘night’ in their product names and why the practice of naming skin-creams as day creams or night creams largely fell out of favour. Functional names such as Skin Food, Tissue Cream, Sports Cream, Dry Skin Cream, Foundation Cream and Vitamin Cream were easier to promote.

Differences in formulation

The original cold creams were generally water-in-oil (W/O) emulsions whereas vanishing creams were of the oil-in-water (O/W) type. This meant that night creams and day creams were at first chemically quite distinct. However, water-in-oil formulations were also made for use during the day. Popular in warmer climates, as they did easily dry out in their containers, they were also used to make skin creams for clients with dry skin and were used as the base for skin creams with ingredients more soluble in oil, such as hormones. Creams used during the day therefore moved away from only using stearate, vanishing cream formulas and became more chemically diverse.

Similarly, although early night creams were generally made using a water-in-oil emulsion – a common way to make a good emollient cream – many night creams were soon being made as oil-in-water emulsions so that they felt less greasy. Additional ‘regenerating’ ingredients were usually added to night creams to aid in skin repair – such as lanolin, hormones and vitamins – but these were also incorporated into creams used during the day.

As night creams were generally viewed as better able to repair the skin, they were ‘richer’ but, as any cosmetic chemist will tell you, a feeling of ‘richness’ can be generated by thickening the cream, something easily done by increasing its wax content or adjusting the types of fats and oils used. This idea was not universal and night lotions were also found in some skin-care ranges.


Although chemical sunscreens were first used in skin creams in the late 1920s, at first they were only found in sun lotions, sunburn and suntan creams. Later they were incorporated into a wide variety of skin creams and lotions to provide everyday protection from ultra-violet (UV) radiation; a major chemical difference between a cream applied during the day and one that is left on overnight. In modern skin-care cosmetics, sunscreens have become more important as their inclusion allows cosmetic companies to make an anti-ageing claim for their products.

Modern day and night creams

A number of cosmetic companies are currently marketing some of their skin creams with night or day in the title and there seems to have been a major resurgence in the use of these terms in labels. Many of the old functional distinctions between these two skin-care lines are still used in advertising – night creams revive and repair, while day creams protect and prevent – but there is no set rule. Although companies generally formulate their night creams to appear ‘richer’ both creams are often said to moisturise and regenerate and lotion formulations are common. Surprisingly, some current day skin-care cosmetics do not include a sunscreen, the only real justification – except for special skin problems – for not using an all-purpose cream day and night.

Update: 7th February 2017


Browning, H. E. (1898). Beauty culture. London: Hutchinson & Co.

How to attain and retain beauty. (1935). London: Hazell, Watson & Viney.

Peiss, K. (2007). Hope in a jar: The making of America’s beauty culture. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Poucher, W. A. (1926). Eve’s beauty secrets. London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd.

The ugly girl papers; or hints on the toilet. (1874). New York: Harper & Brothers.

Wells, F. V., & Lubowe, I. I. (1964). Cosmetics and the skin. New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation.