Decades after Marilyn Monroe shone in the Hollywood spotlight, her beauty lives on.
And now, thanks to an artifact unearthed by New York City’s Makeup Museum, fans of the blonde bombshell get a glimpse into how she stayed so gorgeous.
A document revealing the iconic actress’ personalized beauty routine is on display as part of the museum’s “Pink Jungle: 1950s Makeup in America” digital exhibit. In the letter, dated March 17, 1959, and addressed to Mrs. Marilyn Monroe Miller (she was married to playwright Arthur Miller at the time), dermatologist Erno Laszlo wrote out detailed skincare instructions for the then-32-year-old star.
And upon studying the document, NYC dermatologist Julie Russak says it provides many clues about Monroe’s skin and that there’s much to be learned from her routine today. And many of the products she used are still available now.
“Laszlo was really ahead of his time,” says Russak, who runs Russak Dermatology Clinic on East 57th Street. “His regimen talks about taking care of the lips, the neck and décolletage — not just the face.”
“He personalized every prescription for all of his clients, and Marilyn Monroe was on the drier side,” says Patricia Schuffenhauer, Erno Laszlo’s chief historian and branding officer, in a video posted by the West Village museum. So, all the products in her routine “were to help hydrate her skin.”
In the mornings, Monroe was told to wash her face and neck in warm water with Active Phelityl Soap ($38 at ErnoLaszlo.com) before applying “well-shaken” Normalizer Shake-It treatment ($49, and also reportedly beloved by Greta Garbo) on her face, avoiding the eye area, and then immediately blotting it off.
Beneath her eyes, she was instructed to apply eye cream “in tiny dots, spreading it gently over the surface,” and then blotting it off as well. For the final step, she was meant to apply a powder to her entire face and neck — and then brush it off with cotton after one minute.
In the evenings, Monroe was directed to apply Phelityl Pre-Cleansing Oil ($58) with a cotton pad, cleanse using water plus the same soap from the morning routine, blot it dry and apply Active Phelityl Intensive Cream over it ($88) and blot off the excess with a cleansing lotion before re-applying the cream. Phew.
If that sounds like a lot of blotting, it is, but Russak says Monroe’s process — skipping any harsh rubbing and scrubbing and then reapplying moisturizer — helps reinforce the skin’s moisture barrier.
A key part of Monroe’s prescription, listed at the bottom of the letter, is a list of foods to avoid — “any kind of nuts, chocolate, olives, oysters and clams.” Turns out not diamonds, but diets are a girl’s best friend.
“When the skin is dry and you lose a lot of moisture, it’s prone to being more inflamed,” says Russak, so such restrictions were likely mandated to fight inflammation. “What we eat and what our body absorbs does show up on our skin.”
For one, many of the foods that Laszlo told Monroe to skip are high in salt. “Salt is not something you want to increase in your diet because it makes you retain water, so your skin looks blotchy and swollen,” Russak adds. Those cured olives served atop the ubiquitous martinis of Monroe’s era? Sayonara.
Russak also flags that peanuts — which Monroe might’ve encountered served up as salty bar snacks at a cocktail lounge — can be particularly problematic. “When peanuts are exposed to too much moisture, they can grow aflatoxin, which is toxic,” she says. “It can affect your liver, and in smaller doses can create inflammation in the body. And that then translates to the skin.”
Skipping chocolate isn’t a bad idea, either, says the derm.
“Chocolate can be good for you, but only if it’s about 80% dark. Anything below has a lot of fat and calories, and won’t give you antioxidants and polyphenols,” she says. “Anything below that percentage really has no dietary value, and it has added sugar, dairy and fat. Most of the time it’s easier just to avoid chocolate in general, because it’s going to come out as breakouts on the skin.”
Shellfish poses a slightly different risk.
“Oysters and clams absorb everything from the water, they are like sponges,” she says. “At that time, I can’t imagine they were checking the waters they were brought in from, so there was a high risk that you wouldn’t be eating the cleanest or the purest oysters.” And anything that can wreak gastrointestinal havoc is a no-no if you want good skin.
In addition to Laszlo’s prescription, Monroe also reportedly slathered her skin with Vaseline before her daily baths.
“Marilyn Monroe had the most luminous skin I ever saw,” Oscar-nominated grande dame Renée Taylor said in November at an event celebrating 50 years of the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. “She came into class with [method acting instructor] Lee Strasberg one day, and I just had to ask what she did. Marilyn told me, ‘I rub my entire body down with Vaseline and then get into a three-hour hot bath every morning. It gives my skin a shiny glow.’ So I tried that. I almost drowned.”
But Russak says not to throw too much water on Monroe’s lavish tub time.
“Too much water can actually really dry out the skin. We teach our clients to apply moisturizer right after the shower, while skin is still wet,” she says. “Marilyn was doing the reverse, but the idea is the same: She’s protecting her skin from the water — Vaseline provides a barrier. If she just took a three-hour bath every day, her skin would’ve been like a raisin.”