I Tried Greta Garbo's Favorite Beauty Hack & This Is What Happened

Swedish-born American film actress Greta Garbo (1905 - 1990). (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)
Source: General Photographic Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Testing old Hollywood beauty hacks has kind of become a hobby of mine. This particular time around, I decided to take some inspiration from Greta Garbo, an iconic '30s film actress, best known for her roles in Anna Karenina and Grand Hotel. And although she wasn’t one the biggest beauty icons of the decade (some cite Clara Bow or Jean Harlow), she was arguably one of Hollywood’s most memorable stars.

When it came to the beauty department, Garbo wore styles that clearly reflected the time period, including dramatically thin eyebrows and short, finger-waved hair. But what really set her apart from the rest was her clever use of petroleum jelly to create an ingenious smoky eye that looked great on camera. 

Since my smoky eye skills are anything but exceptional, I figured trying this hack out for seven days would definitely give me loads of much needed practice. So, without further adieu, here’s what happened when I brought a little retro glamour to my usually mundane eye looks.

Day 1

I think my eye makeup looks are pretty darn embarrassing. My senior portrait smoky eye looked like something out of Hot Topic hell. In adulthood, I've managed (barely) to wear a simple cat-eye, but even that has it's limitations. My skills with a shadow brush are no where close to pro, and I thank my lucky stars everyday for eye makeup remover.  

So I was pretty intrigued by Greta Garbo’s secret to a sexy smoky eye. Allegedly, Marilyn Monroe was a fan of this ingenious trick too, so if it's good enough for Marilyn, you know I'm totally down. 

Basically the instructions are foolproof: Garbo reportedly applied a thin layer of petroleum jelly onto her eye before shadow application. This helped her get a glossy, come-hither effect that looked insanely good on camera, plus helped along the blending process. 

Upon first try, I was extremely overwhelmed. Not only was the feeling of having sticky petroleum jelly on my eyes super awkward, but I initially thought there was no way this hack was going to work. So playing it safe, I just focused on using two brown colors from my favorite It Cosmetics palette.

Blending the two shadows proved to be a weird task, as the jelly made them even more smudgeable than before. I can now see how this hack works in theory, but it was going to take a lot more tries for me to get it right.

I did appreciate how this softened the look of the shadows, making them great for a daytime smoky eye. 

Day 2

The first day of my experiment didn't go as poorly as I was expecting, so I felt ready to get a little more crafty with color. Grabbing my Urban Decay Vice 4 palette, I opted to create a mermaid-worthy smoky eye I always dreamed of.

Once the petroleum jelly was on my eyelids, I carefully applied a light shade of blue on my lid. Then, I used two other blue tones on my crease and under my brow. Blending them together with my fingers was kind of hard and messy, but the jelly definitely allowed me to put the proper shades in place, without clumping together like they usually do when dry.

I looked a lot like Mimi from The Drew Carey Show, but I will admit that layering these shadows together was a lot easier thanks to the petroleum jelly. The glossy effect was actually pretty cool on camera, and it definitely gave me confidence to experiment with different kinds of color in the future. My only complaint is that the jelly made the shadow fade faster than I’d like it to.

Day 3


Inspired by Jem And The Holograms, I sought out to master a playful and vibrant pink smoky eye that would like killer in photos. So, grabbing my petroleum jelly again, I picked out three different pink and purple shadows from my Vice4 palette, and got to work. 

I’m somewhat improving in my eye shadow skills, but I wouldn't exactly say I’m a pro. The jelly is still making application a lot easier, but it can make shadows a little too glossy (and runny!) for my liking. Then again, I find myself slapping a lot of it on, so I decided I would try less product on day four to see if that helped. 

Day 4

Too Faced Chocolate Bar, $49, Sephora 

Opting for a more classic eye look a la Sophia Loren, I used an old Too Faced palette to give my eyes that cascading color effect. Using nude, brown and black shadows, I applied each shade to different parts of my eyes. But unlike the red carpet finish I was hoping for, my final result looks botched and uneven. I did noticed that using a little less product allowed my eyelids to look a little less oily, but it was still mostly a mess. 

Day 5

I've always bought into the myth that green shadows look horrible against my skin tone and amber eye color. But willing to see if Garbo's smoky eye trick would change my perceptions, I grabbed yet another Too Faced palette (yes, I'm a shadow hoarder) and used a brown, green and nude shade to create a vampy effect. Overall my finished result looked a lot like camouflage makeup, but I'm finding that creating eye looks is getting easier as the days go on. However I still had this unsettling feeling that I wasn't getting the whole blending thing right. 

Sometimes it’s easier to place shadows on my lid with my finger, but the greasy consistency of the petroleum jelly makes it somewhat difficult to blend. 

Don’t get me wrong: It surely beats the powdery runoff i’m normally used to, but sometimes the shadows can be patchy and look awkward in places. 

Day 6

Orange is yet another color I don’t experiment with enough, so today I found some different orange shadows, and tried blending them with ease. While you really can’t see the different orange tones, it was very cool to create a sunset inspired eye in less than 10 minutes. 

Now this isn't something I would wear everyday, but perhaps will come in handy if I ever wanted to recreate Lady Gaga’s recent Super Bowl look. Please excuse me while I add this to my never ending list of potential Halloween costumes. 

Day 7

But while some unexpected color combinations worked well for me, I found myself struggling with silver and black shades in particular. Even with the petroleum jelly on, my overall result looked like I slept in makeup after a wild night. 

Since my life isn't remotely that exciting, this look wasn’t something I’d try again in the near future. Anyone got any pointers on wearing smoky eyes better? This girl really could use the blending tips.

Should You Try It?

Greta Garbo was definitely onto something when she used petroleum jelly to give her usual eye looks a much needed boost. The glossy sheen definitely looks great in photos, and I could only imagine how it looked on film during the '30s.

But while petroleum jelly allows you to layer and blend shadows a lot easier, shadows tend to get a little faded and not to mention melty in the process. Using two shadows works well, but sometimes adding three shadows can get a little confusing. So should you try it? If you are an eye shadow pro, then definitely! But for the rest of us who remain to be a little perplexed by shadow application, you may want to build up your shadow skills first before actually testing this one out.  

Images: Courtney Leiva (18) 

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