One skin care ideal that has changed over time is skin color. American ideals of skin health have always been tied to problematic ideas about race and economic class. White Americans have idealized a pale complexion for most of American history. A pale, creamy complexion and smooth, white hands not only signified that one was racially white, they also demonstrated one’s wealth by implying that a man—but far more importantly a woman—did not perform manual labor or work outside in the sun.
Because nineteenth-century Americans subscribed to an idealized version of “natural” beauty, the use of beauty products to give the appearance of a white, smooth, clear complexion was looked upon as false and indecent. Women were supposed to “earn” their good complexion through good health practices and moral living. Powders and lotions often advertised themselves as “invisible” in order to satisfy the moral prohibition on artificial beauty.
Despite the social prohibition on cosmetic use, women often secretly sought and used cosmetic skin preparations. Skin color and clarity provided such economic and social advantage that many women were willing to use products that were harmful—these skin products often contained toxic mercury, arsenic, and lead—in an attempt to get closer to the ideal. Though doctors and women’s magazines railed against the dangers inherent to cosmetics, many women likely believed manufacturers’ packaging claims that their cosmetic products were “perfectly safe.”
Both white women and women of color used products to bleach their skin, to lighten or conceal discolored areas, and to soothe and smooth irritated skin and acne. However, few mainstream cosmetic companies marketed to or acknowledged African American consumers, and most common skin care products were not manufactured in colors to suit darker skin. For example, talcum powder, used to protect and soothe skin while also absorbing the shine of perspiration, in its natural state provided a white tint to the skin. It was also available in pinkish or “flesh” (white skin-toned) tints.
In response, women such as Madame C. J. Walker and Annie Turnbo Malone started successful companies to supply darker skinned women with skin care and beauty products. Notably, neither company originally carried skin bleaching products. In fact, Walker asserted that her products were especially appropriate for the skin and the self-esteem of woman who must do manual labor.