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.
Ancient Roman soap (and face masks) used urine as its principle active “lightening” ingredient. The urine was collected from public latrines and pots that functioned as urinals. Urine was so important in Roman cleansing technologies – including the tanning industry and laundering clothes-- that the Roman emperor Vespasian imposed a tax on it. Arguably the most disgusting use of urine was as a teeth whitener. The Romans believed that it would halt the aging process by preventing tooth decay. As a result, they used it as a mouthwash and mixed it with pumice to make toothpaste. It was so effective that it continued to be used in toothpaste into the eighteenth century. The best (and most effective) urine, should you care, was believed to be from Portugal.
For the especially devoted ancient Greek or Roman looking for a little more heat in their mudbath, alligator and crocodile excrement was a vital ingredient. Before you get judgmental about this, bear in mind that snail slime is all the rage these days and there is a New York spa that specializes in a “bird poop facial.” All I can say is that Romans found it very effective.
To return to the category of “ancient treatments that sound pleasant,” fruit was an ancient and effective tool in the pursuit of eternal youth. The ancient Egyptians used strawberries to cure acne, sun spots, and other skin complaints. The Romans thought that strawberries could be used to cure all kinds of medical symptoms, from halitosis to fevers to diseases of the blood. And Dioscordes’ first century C.E. De Materia Medica gives all kinds of advice on fruit, seeds, tree leaves, roots in youth-preserving skincare. By the eighteenth century, when the craze for youth-suggesting-paleness extended to putting lead on one’s skin, ladies of leisure used a toner made out of strawberries and wine to help keep their complexions pale. Madame Tallien, a key figure at the court of the Emperor Napoleon, is rumoured to have bathed in fresh strawberry juice. Given the volume of juice that would have been needed we can only assume that she (like most people of her time) did not bathe every day.
The idea that fruits lighten and brighten lies is at the root of many modern beauty products; a number of exfoliants include fruit and even strawberry seeds; and fruit acids (Vitamin C serums, over-the-counter Retinols, prescription strength Retin-A, and so on) form a key component of numerous modern treatments. Not all citrus-based treatments were painless: in the 19th century lemon and orange juice-based eye drops were used to brighten the proverbial windows to the soul. So, if you’re experiencing some redness after using retinols it could be worse: you could be putting citric acid directly into your eye.
Sadly, I don’t mean drinking it. Unless you are actually old already, in which case Galen recommends that you drink red wine to heat the blood, preserve youthfulness, and most importantly, increase your virility and sexual performance. As a more preventative method, the effects of wine and sake have long been recognized as beneficial for softening the skin. Cleopatra (who clearly had an obsession with beauty, not that I’m judging) also took wine baths, and there’s a whole mythology that accompanies the youthful hands of those women who work in the sake industry. Apparently, it was purely by chance that the scientists who isolated pitera (the chief ingredient in cult product SK-II) noticed the “soft and youthful hands of aged sake brewers.” Vinotherapy (I did not make that up) is experiencing something of a renaissance at the moment on account of resveratrol, a chemical present in red wine which is supposed to have anti-aging properties. You can buy capsules, take wine-baths at Caudalie spas, or, if you want to be all-natural, drink a glass of red wine.
Thus far, most of these products are fairly easy to acquire. Others, however, are more difficult to obtain. According to legend, the sixteenth-century Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathor de Ecsed, the serial killer more commonly known as the “Blood Countess,” bathed in the blood of virgins in order to preserve her youth and beauty. The Countess’s story, alluded to in modern horror movies like Hostel 2 (2007), embodies a principle that is at once ancient and modern: the idea that blood contains the power to preserve youth and beauty. Ancient medics claimed that the blood of gladiators and virgins had special medicinal properties, but modern medicine operates with the same assumptions. It is not only tyrants and trend setters like Kim Jong Il and Lady Gaga who are reported to use blood (in the case of the dictator, virgin blood) to foster health and beauty.
Today, beauty by blood has been thoroughly democratized. There are diets tailored to specific blood types. The Swiss face cream Neocutiss debuted to much controversy primarily because it is derived from cultured foetal cells. Other blood-based beauty treatments are more overt. Kim Kardashian sparked a trend for “Vampire facials,” in which blood drawn from the client’s arm is processed and used to aerate the face, while the more expensive facial filler termed the “Vampire face-lift” is cultured from the patient’s own blood.
If you don’t have the money or stomach for blood, foetal cells, human urine, or animal fats, there’s always sex and its by-products. A number of ancient Greek and Roman medics hypothesized that semen was concentrated blood, making it an especially potent emission for the preservation of life. If a young woman did not have sex at all she was liable to suffer from a disease called, somewhat self-explanatorily, the Disease of the Virgins. The name was coined in the sixteenth century, and the ailment could leave you wasting away with unattractive greenish pale skin. Completely baseless modern urban legend maintains that ingesting human semen is “good for the skin” and will prevent acne. Popular opinion maintains that for centuries the Chinese used human semen in facials to ward off aging.
To this day the semen of animals continues to be a much-hyped ingredient in expensive beauty treatments: for example, organically produced bull semen forms the base of an intense hair conditioning treatment at an exclusive hairdressers in London.
Some of these may be less desirable (or ethical) today, but hey, at least they’re organic.
But if you’re considering gifting beauty treatments this holiday season, perhaps stick to something that can be returned for store credit.