Through the Ages: A Brief History of Skin Care
As long as humans have had skin, they’ve been taking care of it. From the first cave-dweller to the modern-day hipster, women and men alike have been dipping their fingertips into a varied number of products in the hopes of keeping blemishes and signs of old age at bay. Buckle your seatbelts for a brief history of skin care throughout the ages, and how some of our favorite skin care trends that are not as modern as you may have initially thought.
The Ancient World
The ancient world was incredibly innovative in many ways. They mapped the earth when it was mostly unknown and made the earliest strides in urban and medicinal innovations. They also created some skin care favorites that we use up to this day.
The women of Ancient Rome, for example, were fans of face masks. According to Ovid’s Art of Love, the ingredients that could be found in face mask recipes included olive oil (which was also a favorite of the Ancient Greeks), rosewater, animal fat, arugula, cucumber, almond oil, and eggs. Some used the sweat from lanolin (sheep’s wool) before bedtime, much to the chagrin of their male significant others as it supposedly smelled horribly. Moisturizing was essential in the Athenian male’s bathing regimen. We also have the Ancient Greeks to thank for a skin care staple—cold cream—as the earliest recipe for cold cream dates all the way back to 2nd century Greece.
The Ancient Egyptians were also revolutionary in the world of beauty. Not only were they some of the earliest champions of makeup and hair dye, but they were also very fond of cleansing their skin. According to Greek historian Herodotus, Egyptians were so obsessive about cleaning their skin that they’d bathe in cold water twice a day. They used a soda concoction as a replacement for soap (although what went into the soda’s formula is still unknown), and an ointment was massaged into the skin daily in order to keep it from drying out in the hot, Egyptian sun.
Living in a world where self-tanner and a “healthy glow” are desirable complexions, it may be hard to grasp that being fair-skinned was something women once aimed for. In the 14th century, ladies would use blaunchet—a type of ground wheat—to lighten their complexions for the desired pale effect. Sour milk was also used to cleanse the skin, according to Beauty and Cosmetics 1550 to 1950.
The Victorian Era
Victorian women were known for their coy and corsets. The items in their skin care routine, however, had a bit more bite. When it came to ingredients, Victorian women favored the use of ammonia on their skin, according to an article published by the NY Post. Mercury, too, was recommended as an eye treatment, and arsenic was the preferred topical choice to “remove pimples; clear the face of freckles and tan; [and] give the complexion an indescribable brilliancy,” as indicated in this ad for arsenic complexion wafers. Needless to say, those ingredients were eased out of formulas over time.
But Victorian skin care wasn’t all bad. Glycerin and cucumber lotions were recommended for ladies with an oilier complexion, while distilled green pineapple was recommended for anti-aging efforts. Interestingly, it was encouraged that women create their own products since there were no health checkpoints in place to review manufactured products. Lead and mercury were just a few toxic ingredients that made their way into the products of the time to disastrous consequences for the wearer.
The 20th Century
The early 20th century saw the rise of nail care. Women would polish their nails with chamois leather prior to varnishing with rose-tinted oil or paste, opting for a natural-looking pink. The beginning of the century also saw an increased popularity among foundational skin care items, such as astringents, moisturizers, soaps, and night masks.
Come the twenties, pale complexions had become passé. Bronze suntans were the prized color of skin for the fashionable, and companies began to market liquid and powder self-tanners that touted themselves as just as natural-looking as the real thing. This remained a trend throughout the thirties, when specialized suntan oils and lotions where made to specifically filter out harmful rays of the sun. The sales of skin care products even remained strong throughout the Great Depression.
The outbreak of war saw many cutbacks in civilian luxuries, skin care items included. To replace items low in stock, women were advised to soften their hands by wearing gloves to bed or to roll a chestnut in their palms. The U.S. government even provided hand and protective face cream to women factory workers due to the harsh effect the manual labor was having on their skin. Toward the last half of the century, herbal remedies and “natural skin care," were on the rise, a trend that has survived all the way up to modern times.