It’s hard not to feel a smidgen of nostalgia for those mainstays of the 1980s bathroom cabinet – where beauty, style and first aid went hand-in-hand with poisonous, long-term damage to skin, hair and lungs.
Remember, this was an era when it was OK to punch darts on airplanes and booze on when pregnant, and noxious chemicals evoked a confidence to get the job done – whether the mission was to heal wounds or style your hair.
Some of these products should have come with a health warning… which is probably why most of them are extinct today.
Ah, that iridescent, rusty red badge of honour, applied with a cotton bud to all cuts and grazes, helping them to crustify and ‘scab up’ until the joyful day you could start picking away…
This iconic ointment was the go-to antiseptic until the 1990s when its traces of mercury – a.k.a. quicksilver, the super-poisonous liquid metal found in thermometers – made it too much of a liability for over-the-counter use.
From what I see on TV ads, disposable razors nowadays have at least 10 blades, more technology than a smart phone and are ruthlessly gender-specific. When I was a kid, Bic razors were like Bic biros – no frills, plastic and a bag of 10 would sort Dad out for a few months. This was the tool for my first experiments in hair removal: dry shaving my forearm fuzz under my best friend’s tutelage.
Thankfully I moved to epilation and waxing in my teens and haven’t looked back – but the mental scars of shaving chunks off my shinbones (which bled for hours afterwards) with those razors remain, decades later.
This clear gooey ointment, technically petroleum jelly, was first discovered as a sludgy by-product at the bottom of oil rigs in 1859 and for most of the 20th century it was the skincare equivalent of blue jeans – it sorted out everything including cuts, burns and rashes.
I recently found an old-school jar of ‘vas’ with my sister’s initials on the bottom – a sure sign she’d bought it at boarding school or college… from which she graduated in the 1980s (she turned 50 last year). The fact the half-full jar seemed as fresh as new is deeply concerning, and reminded me of that experiment with the McDonalds cheeseburger that looked box-fresh even after 10 years. Yuck.
The sleek, tall can, the trigger nozzle, the chlorofluorocarbons… There wasn’t a more glamorous product with broader appeal – ours took pride of place next to the toothbrush cup beside the sink (mainly because it was too tall to fit in the cupboard).
My dad used so much hairspray each morning to cement his side part that he’d basically hot box the bathroom with the fumes. I loved watching him circulate the spray can around his head like a crop spraying airplane while his other hand madly combed away, spraying a sticky net like toffee wrapping a croquembouche in place.
My enthusiasm for hairspray waned when our babysitter taught us her trick for dealing with spiders – she sprayed them with hairspray which made them freeze and fall off the wall, to be collected and disposed of. I never minded sharing a room with a huntsman – and knowing the gross sensation of hairspray on my bare shoulders I shudder to think of it on hairy spider legs!
I wished we had this in our bathroom, because the coconutty smell was legendary – but we were freckly kids who sustained at least second-degree sunburn at least once every summer, and our mum was responsible enough to insist we used at least factor 8 sunscreen... but ideally 15+.
Mum insisted she used to be fair-skinned and freckly too, but now that she boasted a slightly leathery summer skin she qualified for suntan oil – you should only use it when you already have a base tan, she’d say.
Sadly, 20 years of overexposure means I’d probably qualify for Reef oil these days if I gave sunbaking a red hot go – but with mushrooming sunspots my back feels like a skink on a good day and a crocodile handbag on a bad day. Reef oil: it’s the epidermal equivalent of a pack of unfiltered cigarettes.
- Meg Gannon
Meg Gannon is an online editor from Melbourne who loves her purple BMX, salt ‘n’ vinegar chips and recreating masterpieces from the Australian Women’s Weekly birthday cake book. She’s about to launch an online shop, Show & Tell Vintage, and tries really hard to apply night cream and floss her teeth every day.