Have you ever wondered about the history of skincare? The quest for radiantly healthy skin is as old as humanity itself, but skincare can take many different forms depending where you are in the world—and where you are in time! What your grandma used to keep her skin glowing is probably very different from what you use today. After all, many common products today didn’t even exist a few decades ago! In today’s article, we’ll travel back through time to explore how skincare has changed throughout the ages and across cultures. We’ll end our journey by letting you in on an ancient skincare secret that you can make use of today, so stay tuned!
Our first stop is roughly 6000 years ago in Ancient Egypt. Beauty and appearance were very important to the ancient Egyptians, but many of the ingredients they used in their skincare rituals also had a practical function. For example, kohl was used to outline the eyes, but it also had antibacterial properties and helped protect the eyes from the harsh sun . A very common ritual, regardless of class, was a daily bath every morning, followed by the application of an ancient form of sunblock made of jasmine, rice bran, or lupine. In fact, this is the earliest recorded example of sun protection in history —thousands of years before the harmful effects of UV rays were fully understood!
Honey, which is still used today in many skincare products, was used to help heal scars , while various natural oils were highly prized for their powerful protective and healing properties. In the hot, dry and windy climate of Egypt, plant oils from olive, almond and myrrh helped moisturise the skin and keep it supple and soft .
Our next stop is around 3000 years ago in Ancient Greece. Just like in Ancient Egypt, honey and various plant oils were used to keep skin strong and healthy . Olive oil was an especially important part of Ancient Greek culture, and was referred to as “liquid gold” by the great literary master Homer and as the “the great healer” by Hippocrates, the father of medicine .
Unfortunately, this was also around the time lead-based cosmetics became more popular. Around the Bronze Age, Greek women began using white lead in face creams to hide blemishes and improve skin color, texture and complexion. Lead-based face masks also became more common and were used to help tighten the skin and reduce wrinkles . Of course, this was all very dangerous and led to serious health problems over time (hello, lead poisoning!). Despite its dangers being well-known, lead-based “skincare” dramatically increased during the Ancient Roman period and continued to be popular hundreds of years later, well into the Middle Ages , .
The Middle Ages
During the Middle ages and up until around the 1800s, people were literally dying to be beautiful (pun intended) and continued using lead-based cosmetics—even when it made their hair fall out ! The obsession with artificially whitened skin at any cost was so extreme that it may have even caused the death of Queen Elizabeth I in the 1600s .
1800s — 1900s
Fortunately, the popularity of lead-based cosmetics began to decline in the 1800s, not because of lead’s well-documented toxicity, but because the white-as-snow look finally started to fall out of fashion . By the later 1900s, tanner skin was viewed as more desirable. This was also around the time that mass production of skincare products really took off, though many of them were (and continue to be) based on potentially harmful petroleum derivatives like mineral oils and waxes , .
The Present Day
These days, there seems to be an endless, dizzying array of skincare products available. At the same time, modern science has helped us reconnect with wisdom from the past to figure out what’s really effective and what isn’t. For example, growing evidence confirms the skin-related benefits of many natural plant-based compounds used in ancient times , .
And now, for the promised ancient skincare secret you’ve been waiting for! Can you guess what it might be? Hint: It’s the main ingredient in all our skincare products. If you said frankincense, you guessed right! Frankincense was highly prized in Ancient Egypt, during the Greco-Roman period, in Biblical times, and features prominently in Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese medicine systems , , . Somewhat forgotten in recent history, frankincense is emerging once more as a powerful healing agent with all sorts of scientifically-backed benefits for the skin. Learn more here!
- Egyptian hieroglyphics: https://unsplash.com/photos/wpxr-qSDQJM