Barrier Creams & Lotions

Many industries use chemicals which could irritate the skin and lead to dermatitis with hands being a major point of contact. The consequences of exposure has been long standing issue with many occupations having historical names for specific problems; e.g., ‘baker’s itch’, ‘ink acne’, ‘zinc pox’ and ‘sugar itch’. It was also widespread complaint. In 1938, 65% of all occupational disease in the United States, excluding accidents, were skin afflictions (Kalish, 1942, p.279).

The expansion of the chemical industry during the Second World War and the introduction of new compounds focussed attention on the issue. Although there were concerns that industrial dermatitis would reduce productivity and harm the war effort it seems likely that the main impetus for change came from the influx of woman into industry to do work previously done by men.

We very strongly suspect that the recent greatly increased demand for products to protect the hands and permit them to be more thoroughly cleaned at the end of the day stems from the influx of women into war work. The rough and tough male mechanical operator would not do anything so effeminate as rubbing a cream on his hands and face before starting work. But he has been changing his mind recently, since he has seen his feminine co-worker, by the use of creams, continue her job untroubled by the imbedded grime and occupational dermatitis that have been bothering him.

(Kalish, 1942, p. 279)

One way to protect the hands was to wear gloves but this was not always feasible. Gloves could be uncomfortable, they could hinder delicate work and could cause skin irritation through excessive perspiration when worn for long periods.

Covering the hands with some sort of protective cream or lotion was another possible solution. This was an old idea. For centuries labourers in many industries had protected their hands by rubbing in clean grease before starting work. Some commercial products had also been produced. For example, Mir-A-Kal paste was sold by the Mooers-Wright Company of New York from the 1920s. It claimed to protect the hands from dirt and grease when working on an automobile.

Britain had been at war for over two years before the United States declared war, so cosmetic chemists there became concerned about this topic before their American counterparts.

Women working in the Royal Ordnance factory

Above: Women working in the Royal Ordnance factory during the Second World War applying make-up to help protect their skin from absorbing toxic chemicals such as 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene (TNT).

However, by the end of the war there were a number of protective hand preparations available on both sides of the Atlantic. These were generally referred to as ‘barrier creams’ in Britain and the Commonwealth but not in the United States. In America, most preparations of this type were sold under their trade name due to the misbranding conditions of the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act (FDCA) which put cosmetic manufacturers using the words ‘protective’ or ‘barrier’ at risk of prosecution.

[W]ithin the past year, a number of so-called “protective creams” have appeared on the market. These products are not protective because the word implies too much. For example, such a cream will not protect the hands from being blown off as the result of an explosion, or from being cut by flying missiles. Yet such protection is implied by the title of the product. The creams therefore are mislabeled, and such mislabeling may bring these products within the purview of the Federal Trade Commission or the Food & Drug Administration, or both. They could more properly be called “industrial creams” or by a trade name such as “Sentry Hand and Face Cream” or “Guard” or “Patrol brand Industrial Cream.”

(deNavarre, 1942, p. 35)

Interest in industrial dermatitis did not cease with the end of the war. It continued to attract interest from governments and industry and it remains an issue to this day.

Above: 1950 Industrial Dermatitis by the U.K. Ministry of Labour.

Industrial cleansers

Another source of skin irritation came from the harsh cleansers, solvents and abrasives many workers used to remove grease, grime and other stains from their hands at the end of their shift.

1964 Hand fissures

Above: Deep fissures created by ever harsher cleansing methods used to clean dirt from fissures created by harsh cleansers. Men might be prepared to have their hands feeling rough after cleaning but this was not something most women would live with.

Part of the solution to industrial or occupational dermatitis therefore included the formulation of skin cleansers tailored to the chemicals used in specific industries.


Until the introduction of perfluoropolyethers in the 1980s, a universal barrier cream or lotion was not a consideration. The wide range of soils, solvents and other irritants used in industry – including petroleum oils and greases, explosives, fumes from soldering or welding, alkalis from cement and concrete, solvents, dyes, rubber, paints, varnishes and synthetic resins – meant that what would work as a protective in one situation could fail in another.

Despite the large range of chemical irritants, most barrier creams fell into one of two types: those that defended against water-soluble chemicals including detergents, and those that protected the hands from oil-soluble irritants, solvents and oils. Additional ingredients could be added to either of these to neutralise specific chemicals if appropriate compounds were available. It is not my intention to cover these in great detail as I am primarily interested in the application of barrier creams to households. However, below are listed four formulas recommended by the 1955 British Pharmaceutical Codex Sub-Committee which they thought were likely to afford some protection against the more common hazards:

Dust Barrier
Casein (Rennet, Finely Powdered)3
Sodium Alginate2
Stearic Acid10
Distilled Waterto 100

Water Barrier
Hard Paraffin25
Soft Paraffin1.75
Liquid Paraffin3.5
Cetostearyl Alcohol5
Stearic Acid1.8
Distilled Waterto 100
Oil and Solvent Barrier
Kaolin (Sterilized)20
Hard Soap (Powdered)12
Stearic Acid2
Sodium Chloride1
Distilled Waterto 100

Skin Conditioning Cream
Monostearin, Self-emulsifying10
Triethanolamine Ricinoleate1
Wool Alcohols6
Oleyl Alcohol3
Distilled Waterto 100

(‘British pharmaceutical codex—Barrier substances,’ 1955, p. 121)

None of these formulas contain silicones which came to be the most widely used water-repellant compounds.

Domestic market

As the Second World War came to an end, many cosmetic companies looked into household uses for barrier creams and a number of products were released onto the domestic market after the war.

Above: 1950 A scientist in an Innoxa laboratory demonstrating the effectiveness of a barrier cream.

Most of the household barrier creams and lotions were modified stearate or vanishing creams containing water-repellant silicones such as polydimethylsiloxane. A sample formula for a silicone lotion is given below:

(parts by weight)
Polydimethylsiloxane 350 ctks [centistokes]5.0
Glyceryl monostearate (pure)6.0
Mineral oil 65/752.0
Stearic acid XXX4.7
Water, q.s.100.0
Perfume and preservative, q.s.

Procedure: Heat A to 85°C. Heat B and preservatives to 85°C. Add A to B while mixing; perfume at 40°C. Mix well and package.

(deNavarre 1975, p. 317)

Barrier creams and lotions, or their American equivalents, were generally advertised as protecting the hands against the stresses of household chores and contact with soaps and detergents in particular. Some cosmetic companies, like Innoxa, marketed separate products for use in wet or dry situations but others developed products that were all-purpose, suggesting that they were effective in both wet and dry situations.

As a group, hand cosmetics advertised as barriers were not successful in the domestic market. In 1956, ‘The Chemist and Druggist’ noted that although three out of four British women used a hand cream or lotion, only one out of ten had ever used a barrier cream.

The reason for the failure is unclear. It is possible that some were poorly formulated, did not contain the right silicone or enough of it to be effective or both (deNavarre, 1975, p. 312) but other factors may have been in play. Advertisers of the period may have found that women responded more positively to claims that hand creams were soothing, anti-ageing and moisturising.

Where preparations advertised as a barrier did find a ready market was in baby products designed to help prevent diaper rash.


Above: Revlon Baby Silicare Lotion. It contained glyoxyl diureide, polydimethylsiloxane and hexachlorophene (Smithsonian). The range also included Medicated Baby Silicare Powder.

However, even here the domestic need for barrier products may be in decline. The increasing use of disposable nappies – which draw fluid away from the skin – has made the regular use of a diaper cream largely unnecessary.

See also: Hand Balms, Creams & Lotions

Updated: 20th August 2017


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British pharmaceutical codex—Barrier substances. (1955). Occupational Medicine, 4(4), 121.

Cook, M. K. (1959). Barrier creams. Drug & Cosmetic Industry, 84(1), 32-33, 110-112.

deNavarre, M. G. (1942). Preventing industrial dermatitis. The American Perfumer & Essential Oil Review, December, 35-36.

deNavarre, M. G. (1975). Protective and barrier creams. In M. G. de Navarre (Ed.), The chemistry and manufacture of cosmetics (2nd ed., Vol. 3, pp. 311-322). Orlando, FL: Continental Press.

Hopkins, S. J. (1947). Industrial dermatitis and the formulation of barrier creams. Manufacturing Chemist and Manufacturing Perfumer, 18(9), 389-393.

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Kalish, J. (1959). Hand lotions and creams. Drug & Cosmetic Industry, 85(3), 310-311, 416.

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Redgrove, H. S. (1941). Skin protective creams. The Perfumery and Essential Oil Record, January, 16-17.

Schwartz, L. (1943). How to protect the glamorous hands of industry. The American Perfumer & Essential Oil Review, August, 43-46.

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