It’s the holiday season; a time of glittery dresses, indoor evergreens, expanding waistlines, and, of course, gift giving. According to market research, sales of beauty products escalate through November and into December, suggesting that the desire to stay beautiful and young is on the top of our Christmas lists. But the rampant messaging of a multi-billion-dollar industry saturated with claims about youth, lightening, smoothing and so on makes purchasing products a thorny task. What’s the thoughtful gift-giver to do? This was not always the case, in the past, claims the quest for skin-deep eternal youth was more straightforward, if markedly more repulsive.
To begin with one of the more socially acceptable products, milk was an apparent mainstay of the ancient Egyptian toilette. According to legend, Cleopatra used the milk of seven hundred donkeys in the place of bath water. The regime seems to have worked, as she managed to bed both Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony and was described by Cassius Dio as “a woman of surpassing beauty” who was “brilliant to look on.” Dr. Jessica Baron, a historian of science, told The Daily Beast that Roman women thought milk from an ass (the animal) would whiten their skin and make it softer. In ancient thought milk was connected to birth, new life, and sustenance and, thus, was a good tool for preserving one’s youth. Modern scientists, on the other hand, would identify the lactic acid in milk as an (admittedly mild) exfoliant, which can perhaps explain the brilliance of Cleopatra’s skin.
If you were trying to recreate this at home you should be sure to include honey and rose petals in the mix. Cleopatra, like many ancient Greek women, would use rose water as a kind of hydrator. To this day there are all kinds of beauty products that rely upon the hydrating effects of milk and roses.
Of course, if you were looking for more potent cleansers and moisturizers, fats were a more effective solution. The medic Hippocrates notes over sixty uses for olive oil in his writings, but by far the most common was the use of olive oil to moisturize and protect the skin. Both ancient Greek athletes and the patrons of the Roman baths used olive oil as a cleanser and moisturizer.
They would begin by lathering themselves in oil and using a strigil (a curved blade almost always made of metal) to scrape off the dirt, sweat, and oil before bathing. At the Roman baths, the dirt and skin-cell laden oil from men’s bodies would often be collected for use as a conditioner on women’s hair. The sweat-laden oil from gladiators was especially desirable in female beauty products. The routine was so important that some ancient tombs and burial sites include strigils and bottles of oil. Think of it as the first step in your double cleanse routine.
Olive oil was the most common cleanser-hydrator, but there were plenty of other fat-based options. The hydrating properties of beeswax continues to be used today, but animal fats were the go-to ingredients for ancient soap. Babylonians were making soap from animal fats around 2800 BCE, and similar techniques can be noted among ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians (the Phoenicians used goat’s tallow and wood ashes in theirs) before the turn of the millenium.
For ladies of the medieval period, animal fats, and hog’s fat in particular, were a popular choice as a “face mask” to restore lustre to the skin. The prescribed ointment included cowslips (a yellow flower), hog grease (likely retrieved from the kitchen), and water.
By the Victorian period medics had developed more invasive techniques for penetrating the skin. The invention of the needle saw Austrian surgeon Robert Gersuny experiment with the first dermal fillers. In the late 1800s dermal fillers were made of mineral oil (Vaseline) and paraffin and were primarily used to correct defects. Dr. Robert Schwarcz, a New York based OculoFacial Plastic and Reconstructive surgeon told The Daily Beast that while the principle of filler is still in use today, the wax used in the Victorian era had a tendency to migrate to other parts of the body and to form hard unattractive clumps that could get infected.
The popularity of the procedure came to an abrupt halt in the 1920s in part because Gladys Deacon, the then-Duchess of Marlborough and a famous society beauty in her time, was horribly disfigured by an injection of hot wax into her nose. Paraffin and beeswax continue to be used in modern beauty regimes but only externally as hand softeners and in lip balm.
Modern fillers are usually made of hyaluronic acid, but the real gold standard for anti-aging is not fillers but surgery, something that wasn’t attempted on any scale until the nineteenth century. But ancient Egyptians and modern surgeons agree that beauty and aging begin with the eyes and, more precisely, the eyelids. What the Egyptians saw as the windows to the soul, Schwarcz told me that “what the Egyptians called the windows to the soul are the first thing people look at,” making a blepharoplasty (eyelid surgery) the first port of call in the modern world and an aspirational dream in the ancient one.