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Skin Care History: Then and Now

Have you ever stopped to think about the evolution of skin care? How women in ancient times used to make themselves look beautiful. Of course, they didn’t have the skin care wonders we have at our fingertips today – from med spa procedures, moisturizers, Botox to anti-aging creams and serums. If you are curious about the history of skincare too, then let us delve back in time and discuss the techniques women in ancient times to care for their skins and in the process, appreciate where the industry is today, and how far it has come through the ages.

So where did it all start…you guessed right, ancient Egypt!

Ancient Egypt Skin Care

Ancient Egyptians were known for many things, but nothing matches their love of beauty. Their dedication to skin care can be seen throughout their history. Actually, the earliest form of skin care in Ancient Egypt dates back 4000 years ago. Not only was beauty part of their culture, but an important part in their burial and mummification traditions. It is no surprise then that archaeologists continue to discover some form of cosmetics in tiny clay pots even in the humblest of tombs.

Beauty and tradition aside, the Egyptians had to deal with some very harsh climates. This triggered them to push deeper into the world of skin care.

How Did They Make Cosmetics?

Ancient Egyptians adored and studied nature, and it’s where they would find inspiration for beauty. This was down to their deep understanding of plants, oils, clay, and organic compounds. Some of their most impressive products included

  • Face masks made from honey and milk
  • Moisturizers made from olive oil
  • Exfoliating scrubs made from sand and aloe vera.
  • Anti-aging lotions made out of fenugreek, castor and moringa oils

Back in the day, there were little to no health and safety measures, meaning that products made use of some harmful and potentially dangerous ingredients like mercury and white lead. Although potentially harmful, use of lead helped reverse some type of eye infections like conjunctivitis.

Ancient Greek

The word cosmetics is derived from a Greek word; kosmeticos. This in itself is a hint that the Greeks contributed massively to skin care. Their influence dates back to ancient days. Although they took some inspiration from the Ancient Egyptians, they were happy to add their own twist. This pushed the boundaries of skincare knowledge to new heights.

Nudity was an important part of the beauty in Ancient Greece. Hence, taking care of skin all over was important to both men and women. They did this by moisturizing their bodies with natural honey and a mix of olive oil. Greek athletes, on the other hand, were known to take olive oil baths as moisturizers.

The Greeks entered themselves into skin care lore with the creation of the first cold cream. The cream was made by a Greek physician using a mixture of rose water, beeswax, and olive oil. In 1907, the cream was developed further to make a more stable cream. This was made possible by the use of mineral oil in place of olive oil.

Ancient Romans

Where nudity was a Greek thing, hair removal was a Roman way to show beauty. Men and women both shaved bleached or dyed hair. For Ancient Romans, beauty was also about being clean at all times, starting from cleansing the skin to the rest of the body.

As such, Roman baths were an important part of their culture. From steam therapy, body scrubs and massage, cleansing options were up for grabs in Roman bathhouses.

Consequently, facials became popular, with household ingredients readily available for the task;

Flour, corn, butter, milk, flower oils, almonds and saffron for fragrances were popular skin care ingredients.

Ancient Chinese

While Europe was busy making huge skin care steps, Ancient Chinese were on the outside looking in.

During the Shang Dynasty, skin care took a huge leap in front. Natural and pale was the new obsession in town. As such, face powders and skin lighteners became the best-selling skin care products.

Cleansing started as the next trend through China, with the rich using ingredients like seaweed and jellyfish.

In the succeeding Tang Dynasty, the journey to smooth skin continued. One of the most used ingredients with skin lighteners at the time was the songyi mushrooms, which is still used today by skin lightening products. Skin lightening products were a mainstay in China, but with an emphasis on a more holistic approach of self-awareness because everything from diet and sun can affect the skin.

Medieval Era

Enter the Medieval time, where smooth and pale skin was revered. In this era, users sort out to create more products that could help them achieve this.  Their ingredients consisted mainly of
Aloe vera, Cucumber, Animal fats, Rosemary, flowers, leaves, seeds, and vinegar. Rosemary, Aloe Vera, and cucumbers were used to cleanse the skin. Seeds, leaves, and flowers were infused with honey to make face masks, and vinegar was utilized as an astringent.

The Renaissance Era

Social status mattered a lot during the Renaissance period. Women would go all the way to find any skincare technique that would give them that extra beauty. Skin lightening products grew in popularity, mostly utilized by women who worked the fields as they felt the need to hide darker tanned caused by spending too much outside. Dark skin was a giveaway of place in society, and women would go the extreme to change that perception. To achieve this, they used everything from chalk to silver mercury to lead to brighten their faces. Dry brushing was created during this era as well. It involved the use of a special brush to exfoliate the skin, helping with circulation and a range of skin issues. Honey, on the other hand, combined well with other herbs to become the go-to cleansers of the time.

Another interesting remedy of the time was boiling oatmeal in vinegar and using it to treat pimples. That practice, alongside soaking bread in rose water to treat puffy eyes, made it to the top of the skincare game.

The Baroque Era

Fast forward into the Baroque Era and things started to become interesting. It is in this period that women discovered the power of cleansing. They would spend hours in saunas, sweat cleansing and milk baths. Milk baths, in particular, were great for smoother and clearer skin.

Makeup in this period had developed to look like paint, and surprisingly, heavy make-up was considered more appealing and respectable. Rouge became popular in the 1780s especially with French women, who would consume two million pots of rouge each year. Women were not short of ideas with lips either, reddening them with vinegar or distilled alcohol to complete the look.

The 1800s

The 1800s combined improved skin care with exercise and cleanliness. Zinc oxide was once a common skin lightener in this period, only losing popularity due to allergic reactions. Shortly after, hygiene companies increased with more affordable and accessible products.

This era still maintained the use of harsh cleansers alongside foods like egg yolks, oatmeal, and honey to fight blemishes and soften the skin. Lemon juice also helped to naturally bleach skin albeit a few shades lighter. During this era, Vaseline, baby powder and Chapstick were invented to revolutionize skin care.

20th Century

Skin care business was booming in the 1900s. Skin care products exploded and access was better than ever. In 1937, the now iconic Carmex was invented, followed by sunscreen almost a decade later in 1944. From 1950-1980s, companies like Estee Lauder, Clearasil, Clinique, Oil of Clay and Ponds were launched. In 1989, Dr. Howard Murad’s line followed suit, alongside Burt Bees around the same time. By the end of the era, the FDA approved the use of Botox to treat frown lines in the face.

Skin Care Today

Fast forward to the modern day and skin care has evolved to near magic. From impressive technologies, out of this world spa experiences and fascinating skin nourishing luxury ingredients like gold and truffles, it’s really an amazing time to be alive.

Skin care and beauty enthusiasts have also evolved, and people are now self-aware – knowing their skin types and what works for them as the first step to choosing products.

The history of skin care, as fascinating as it is, continues to write itself and is far from finished. Things have changed over time, but there are still striking similarities between modern skin care and the ancient world. The Ancient Egyptians paved the way with natural botanicals and inspired the more complex but intriguing, skin care compounds coming out of laboratories now.

Who knows what the next decade brings, we can only wait to see.


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