In 1937, Burton T. Bush, Inc., a New York affiliate of Givaudan-Delawanna, began a research project to develop new antiseptic compounds. Headed by Dr. William S. Gump, the research team identified a number of promising halogenated phenols they collectively called the G series: G-11 in the series was later given the name hexachlorophene.
Gump outlined the properties of this new compound in his 1939 patent application, granted in 1941.
This compound exhibits strong antiseptic and disinfecting action against micro-organisms and particularly against bacteria of the type of Staphylococcus aureus. It is also very effective as a fungicide. …
This new phenol is a white, practically odorless and tasteless solid compound. These qualities and physical properties permit its wide use as an antiseptic, bactericidal, fungicidal and preserving agent. It may be employed in solid form as well as in solution or emulsion or in admixtures with other active or inert substances such as tooth powders, toothpastes, ointments, creams, cosmetics, rubbergoods, etc.
As well as being effective against bacteria and fungi, hexachlorophene did not have the strong odour associated with traditional phenol antiseptics. Gump suggested it could be used in a wide range of products including soaps.
In 1946, Armour & Company began looking into the possibility of developing a new deodorant soap. Deodorant soaps already on the market – such as Lifebuoy – typically used derivatives of cresol and had a strong medicinal smell (Seitz & Richardson, 1988, p. 345).
Robert E. Casely, a research chemist at Amour, conducted experiments with a range of chemicals and after working his way down a list of possibilities without success, eventually tried hexachlorophene, testing its deodorising capabilities using small cotton pads to absorb odour in his armpits (Seitz & Richardson, 1988, p. 355). Hexachlorophene worked well as a deodorant, had a low level of skin irritancy, remained effective when incorporated into soap, and had a mild odour that was easily covered with scent.
Having established its usefulness, Amour launched its new hexachlorophene soap in 1948 under the brand name ‘Dial’ and promoted it with a large advertising budget. By 1951, Dial’s sales passed Lifebuoy and it went on to become the top selling soap in the United States in dollar volume by 1954. Lever Brothers got the message and made Lifebuoy more pleasant smelling; changing its germicide to tetramethylthiuram disulfide (TMTD) in 1953 (Spitz, 2004, p. 36).
The success of Dial led to hexachlorophene – also known as G-11, AT-7, M-3, PC-11, HCP and a variety of other generic names – being used as an antiseptic in other products including surgical scrubs, cosmetics, toothpastes, mouthwashes, anti-dandruff shampoos, antiperspirants and feminine deodorant sprays. It was commonly employed in many more as a general preservative.
Leaving aside its use as a deodorant or preservative, the main cosmetic use of hexachlorophene was in the adolescent and problem skin market. There it was widely employed in cleansers, masks and other skin-care products to combat the bacteria associated with pimples and acne. Cosmetics such as Max Factor’s Skin Clear Medicated Cleanser, Dorothy Gray’s Liquid Cleansing Cream, Tussy’s Medicated Lotion, Revlon’s Clean and Clear Foaming Cleanser, and Helena Rubinstein’s Beauty Dew Cleansing Cream were but a few of the skin-care products introduced during the 1950s and 1960s that used hexachlorophene as a medication.
Hexachlorophene was also used in many types of make-up. Examples include: Nozxema’s Cover Girl Liquid Make-up, Revlon’s Natural Wonder Medicated Cake Make-up, Yardley’s Shine-Stopper Medi-Blush, Max Factor’s Pure Magic Medicated Liquid Make-up and Bonne Bell’s Medicated Lipsticks.
Although hexachlorophene was employed in a wide range of products very little research had been undertaken into its effects on the body. It was known that levels of hexachlorophene built up on the skin with regular use but health authorities did not think this posed a problem as the compound was not very soluble and so considered unlikely to be absorbed into the body.
By the 1970s this attitude had begun to change as some studies indicated that hexachlorophene could be absorbed into the body and affect the nervous system. Before health authorities could act on these reports a manufacturing blunder in France led to the death of a number of infants dusted with talcum powder made incorrectly with a high level (6%) of hexachlorophene. This led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue a recall of consumer products containing more than 0.75% hexachlorophene in 1972. Other health authorities also clamped down on its use.
By the time the FDA acted about 1.8 million kilograms (four million pounds) of the compound were being manufactured annually for use in medical and cosmetic products. The FDA directive therefore affected a large number of products.
I remember reading a commissioner’s meeting minutes where they opined that there were probably something like six to 12 products that had hexachlorophene in them. It turned out that there were something like 1,500 products with hexachlorophene.
… About 600 of those were recalled. They were mostly products that used hexachlorophene as a preservative; if the percentage was not minimal, up to three-quarters of a percent, they were moved behind the counter as prescription products; and if it was more than three-quarters of a percent, it was recalled.
Understandably, Givaudan-Delawanna, amongst others, thought the FDA response to the French tragedy was an over-reaction. However, commercial protests did not stop the ban and a wholesale replacement of hexachlorophene in consumer products took place.
The removal of hexachlorophene from cosmetics after 1972 was associated with an increase in the marketing of ‘natural’ skin-care products and a shift to more ‘natural looking’ fashions in make-up, at least in the United States. This was already taking place by 1972 but the hexachlorophene scare, which increased consumer distrust of synthetic chemicals, may have accelerated the process.
The hexachlorophene recall also made cosmetic companies aware of the danger of closely associating a cosmetic with a synthetic compound. A number of companies had prominently advertised that their products contained hexachlorophene and had suffered an adverse public reaction when its neurotoxicity became public. Although they continued to use synthetic ingredients, cosmetic companies therefore became more wary about advertising their presence in the future.
Updated: 22nd February 2016
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