Beauty standards are ever-changing, but Marilyn Monroe still prevails as their paradigm. It's been decades since her tragic death, but the desire to exude her charm and confidence—or sleep with her—has never waned. On-screen, Monroe often portrayed the stereotypical dumb blonde, but in real life, she was anything but. A self-proclaimed book nerd, she was a poet, a voracious reader, and a proud fan of Nietzsche and James Joyce.
Monroe’s intelligence carried over to her beauty regimen. When it comes to wellness, Monroe was often ahead of her time. She favored dry shampoo—baby powder on her roots every two days—and often spoke of her disdain for excessive sun-bathing, citing skin damage. Her grooming habits were especially liberal: She loved “being blonde all over.” (Or so she coyly claimed.)
Thanks to New York’s Museum of Makeup, which previewed its postponed “Pink Jungle: 1950s Makeup in America” exhibition over the weekend, we now know that Monroe’s morning and evening skin regimens were also progressive. Just like Hepburn and Garbo, her facialist was the Hungarian-born Dr. Erno Laszlo. (Yes, the one with the famous 30-splash soap all you beauty junkies know.) Back in 1959, he prescribed Monroe a detailed skin routine to address one of her chief skin complaints: dry skin.
In today’s modern world of beauty care, where we’re bombarded with lasers, peels, and other painful alternatives, many skin experts are embracing the tried and true methods of eras past. We asked Dr. Barbara Sturm, top celebrity skin expert, to analyze Monroe’s regimen and judge whether it still holds up today.
In the very first step, Dr. Laszlo instructs Marilyn to specifically use warm water while washing with soap. What’s the thinking here? Does the temperature affect product absorption, or have any effect on pores and how they react to soap, toner, and cream?
Using lukewarm water to cleanse was good advice. Although cold water can also have benefits, skin does better away from extreme temperatures, which can trigger inflammation. Lukewarm water is optimal because it helps adequately foam up the cleanser. It can help balance the skin’s surface sebum, and is best for removing any dirt or excess oils on your face. For the most part, soap is extremely alkaline, with a pH of 8 or 9. Skin pH is under 5, so soap generally has the potential to be drying. It could possibly have been an irritant to Marilyn’s skin and affected the state of her skin barrier function.
Dry skin is a common complaint. It might be difficult to thoroughly calculate the formulations here, since some of the products have been discontinued, but there’s a consistent and generous mention of using toners, to the point of over-saturating the cotton ball. Are you a fan of toners in general?
From the description, Marilyn’s skincare routine could have very well contributed to her dry skin. Depending on the ingredient science of Marilyn’s toner, it might have helped or worsened her dry skin problem. Her toner might have restored some of her pH balanced thrown off by the soap. Toners can be extra-hydrating and non-aggressive, or they can contain aggressive acids and harsh alcohols that damage skin barrier function, yielding skin that is dry, red, and irritated. I’m a fan of toners with the right ingredient science.
One of her nighttime steps is double cleansing that involves an oil cleanser followed up with a cream cleanser. Are you a fan of double cleansing at night?
I don’t recommend double cleansing because it can dry out and irritate your skin and weaken your skin barrier functions. An oil cleanser is okay to remove eye makeup, or just use your moisturizer and a cotton pad.
How do you feel about oil cleansers in general? What are the benefits or potential drawbacks?
When using oils, whether in a cleanser or a face oil, it depends which you use and what skin type you have. You need to choose the right oil cleanser for your specific skin type, otherwise some oils can cause clogged pores, breakouts, milia, and dry skin. I always recommend using a hydrating foam cleanser and looking out for good ingredients, like aloe vera.
Her doctor also forbade her to eat any kind of nuts, chocolate, olives, oysters, or clams. You consistently tout the benefits of healthy fats, as do many in the wellness and skincare world. What could be the rationale here?
Her doctor was correct that diet has a huge impact on skin health and quality. Anti-inflammatory foods should have been her goal, but those include some on Marilyn’s doctors forbidden list. Nuts, olives, and chocolate are anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative. It is true, however, that chocolate can contribute to acne, because of the sugars, not because of the cocoa. So, forbidding chocolate and other high glycemic index foods may have been Marilyn’s doctor’s idea. Steering Marilyn away from oysters and clams makes more sense. She might have been allergic to shellfish, which would have caused skin rashes and a variety of unpleasant and even dangerous reactions. And even if she wasn’t allergic, a bacterium called Vibrio vulnificus sometimes found in raw or undercooked clams and oysters can cause skin rashes and other health issues.
Like many women, Marilyn had a favorite drugstore skin secret. She used to douse her face in Vaseline before applying makeup for a luminous glow, and often said she used it on her body head-to-toe before going in a hot bath in the mornings for smooth skin. In today’s world, how does one rationalize this practice? Does it still hold up?
That anecdote is a great way to highlight progress in ingredient science. Vaseline is petroleum jelly, a mix of petroleum and waxes. Like petroleum, it puts a film slick on your skin. Vaseline is not a humectant, that adds moisture; it is an occlusive, which means it seals the skin barrier. I would not recommend Vaseline. It is petroleum-based, clogs pores, and can contribute to acne and rosacea.
What's a healthy alternative, if that's not the way to go?
An inexpensive DIY approach that would provide the benefits Marilyn was looking for would be a whole milk bath, with a little olive oil added in. Milk is full of nourishing vitamins and minerals; vitamin E, which is an antioxidant that helps support cell function and skin health and Zinc, which holds anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-acne properties ideal for soothing and healing skin. Whole milk also contains lactic acid, which acts as a mild exfoliant by loosening the conjunctions between dead skin cells. The fat and proteins in a milk bath nourish and smooth skin. A few capfuls of extra virgin olive oil will soften skin while providing more vitamin E antioxidant impact.