The Fascinating History of Skin Care
Methods That Worked and Those That Did Not
September 23th, 2021
I just finished up my nightly routine of removing my makeup, cleansing, toning, and moisturizing, and I began wondering to myself about where this skincare routine started. When did humans begin using natural ingredients to take care of blemishes or improve dry skin? And when did we start trying to appear younger or reduce the presence of wrinkles?
There have been some notoriously gorgeous women throughout history, as noted in many famous paintings, sculptures, and literature. So how did women like Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, and Nefertiti remain so beautiful without the Clinique skincare line, Botox, or Instagram filters that we have today?
With a bit of prior knowledge and a little extra research, I thought I’d share some of the more interesting highlights in the history of skin care. I’ll warn you though, some of these practices made me question how we even survived through these eras.
Egypt / Africa
We usually tend to think of skin care as daily moisturizers or age defying serums, but skin care has been a part of the human routine for thousands of years. The first recorded information of skin care practices that we have uncovered came from Ancient Egyptians dating back to 6000 BCE. The Ancient Egyptians took skin care and personal hygiene to a whole other level, even compared to today. Wealthy Egyptians were even buried with their skincare products to ensure safe passage into the afterlife.
Personal appearance and skin care were so culturally important to them that it was written into religious texts that one could not speak in the afterlife unless they were clean and anointed with the finest oil of myrrh.¹ Skin care in Ancient Egypt focused on protection from the harsh desert elements, as well as health benefits and youth preservation. Because of the severe judgement in the afterlife, manufacturers used only the finest natural ingredients and most trusted production methods.
The Ancient Egyptians used ingredients in their ointments, oils, and creams to soften skin, protects from sunburn, protect the eyes, and enhance one’s appearance. The use of castor, sesame, and moringa oils helped fight wrinkles and preserved a youthful appearance. Ancient Egyptians also made soap from clay and olive oil to cleanse their skin. Honey and milk baths were also incorporated into their beauty regimes to moisturize, rejuvenate, and heal their skin.
African skin care history was centered around locally found plants and herbs because Africa is rich in botanical life, containing plants that are not found anywhere else but Africa. Castor oil and shea butter are two of the most popular ingredients originating in Africa that are known for their medicinal properties to soothe skin rashes, fade stretch marks, banish acne, and prevent dryness. The invention of the oils, soaps, clays, and other natural skin care products in Africa were created to protect from the arid and hot weather conditions.
Greece & Rome
Like the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans also used natural skincare to protect their skin from the elements from 3200 BCE to around 480 CE. Ancient Greeks made their own skincare products using regional, natural ingredients. Honey was used as a moisturizer, and oils were used as a natural sunscreen. However, this likely wasn’t to just prevent sun damage but to avoid getting tanned skin, which was associated with the lower class. Lighter skin tones were highly valued, so women frequently used white lead, crocodile dung, and chalk in order to lighten the appearance of their skin.² We do NOT recommend doing this.
Ancient Romans created face masks made from olive oil, fresh berries, rosewater, animal fat, cucumber, almond oil, and eggs. This was believed to tighten the skin, reduce wrinkles, and keep the face looking youthful. The desire for clear, smooth, youthful skin would lead to many experimental concoctions in attempt to appear more beautiful. Taking their skincare routines a step further, many Greeks and Romans would spend an entire day at the spa to focus on their skin.
Beauty rituals began around 1760 BCE during the Shang dynasty in China and East Asia. They also valued healthy, natural pale skin, and used skin lighteners and powders made from Songyi mushrooms to achieve their beauty standards. Skin care routines included facial massages, bleaching with gels and lotions, and dieting to clear skin of blemishes. Cleansers made from seaweed and jellyfish were also believed to be beneficial for skin. Courtesans went to great lengths to have clear and smooth skin, using white lead-based powders and lotions to remove pigmentation and bleach their skin.
The same desire for clear, pale skin lasted through Medieval times and the Renaissance in Europe, continuing and promoting the use of toxic substances like lead and arsenic in powders. Because these ingredients were more expensive, people began laying them on without cleansing. These products were often caked on so thick that removal was so difficult, people had to use acidic substances like wine or vinegar to get them off. Mercury was also introduced as an ingredient to remove blemishes.
It wasn’t all bad though. Aloe vera, rosemary, herbs, and honey were also used to cleanse and rejuvenate the skin. Oatmeal and milk baths were considered an extravagant treat for the skin. Women often used bread soaked in rose water to soothe puffy eyes as well. The first cold cream was developed using rose oil and water, and melting beeswax into it. For most though, skin care was considered a privilege, and products were expensive and difficult to obtain.
Industrial revolution – Modern Day
During the Baroque period and into the Industrial Revolution, however, people started using gentler and healthier skincare methods again. Saunas and milk baths were used to improve skin texture and tone, and healthier lifestyle choices attributed to improved skin quality. Hygiene products like Chapstick, Vaseline, and baby powder were made more easily accessible thanks to the Industrial Revolution. In the 1900s, pale complexions gave way to a healthy bronzed glow as the new beauty standard.
Technology and scientific evidence eventually created health standards for beauty products, expelling the use of mercury and lead in cosmetics. Plant based and natural skincare routines have become more prominent. Even at Belle et Bénie, we only use all natural ingredients in our skincare products to provide relief and comfort. Skin care is once again becoming medicinal, and the use of CBD in skin care routines is rising. Today, skin care is safe and expanding, and new trends continue to emerge as innovation becomes strong than ever.
1. Mark, J. (2017, May 4). Cosmetics, Perfume, & Hygiene in Ancient Egypt. World History
2. NA (2018, March 29). The History of Skincare. Cirem. https://cirem.com/the-history-of-skincare
3. NA (2019, January 14). A Brief History of Skincare Through the Ages. INB Medical.