From the Nile to the Seoul - How Skincare has Evolved Over Time

Skincare can be traced back to ancient Egypt as far back as 3000 BC. Ancient Egyptians used natural and mineral remedies to beautify their appearance. Egyptian queens, particularly Cleopatra is renowned for her sour milk bath.

With natural resources in abundance, the Egyptians created skin care products from olive oil, ostrich eggs, milk, aloe vera and essential oils. They were the first ones to realized that oils could help reduce stretch marks in women.

Even today the natural skin care products use aloe, Myrrh, and Frankincense.  

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It is the Egyptians that created the first anti-aging lotion by using fenugreek oil that would help reduce wrinkles and other imperfections.

Skin care was also important in the afterlife for Egyptian Culture. Many skin care products were found in tombs by archaeologists such as body and face oils.

Chinese Skincare – 1760 BC

Skin care in China began during 1760 BC with the Chinese valuing the pale look. They would use and powders and lighteners to achieve the paler skin. An Empress developed her skin care methods, recorded and shared them all with the other women.

She would use natural products for cleansers including seaweed, jellyfish, and extracts of Songyi mushroom.

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The Empress was also a firm believer that diet directly affects how the skin would look. She made black beans, sesame seeds and Chinese yam, part of her diet. 

On addition to nutrition,  Chinese were also fond of a powdered face, and the smooth skin looks and would use white powders. These white powders were made from lead with the aim of achieving that whiter look. The Chinese were keen on using natural gels and lotions with the hope of removing any pigments. Additionally, they would on occasion, bleach their skin in search of that whiter complexion. A popular skin lightener was derived from Songyi mushroom.

 Still today, the songyi mushroom can be found in certain natural products.

Skin care methods of the Greeks and Romans – 750 BC – 500 BC

The Greek approach was very similar to that of the Egyptians. They borrowed a lot from Egyptian skin care secrets but adapted with their twist to it.

The Greeks developed their own techniques for distilling the oils and essences. These oils and extracts would come from locally sourced organic herbs and other plants. Greeks were fond of using organic honey as a moisturizer with oils and sometimes sand as methods of protecting their skin from any sun damage.

Greek women would also use white lead and chalk in an attempt to lighten the complexion of their skin.

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Romans would rub olive oil on their skin to remove any dirt. They would use a tool called a Strigil to scrape off any dirt from their faces to make sure they were as clean as could be.

Roman women are also known for using crocodile dung, lead chalk, beeswax and rose oil as part of their beauty rituals.

It is believed that the Romans also used the mineral called alum, as a method of treating scabs of the skin. To combat any acne, they would use olive leaf extract.

Skin Care in Europe – 1500 AD

The pale, white skin look was popular among European women as well.

They used lead and vinegar mixture for whitening foundation, facial peels and removing freckles. Queen Elizabeth I was infamous for using this whitening foundation as well.

Strangely, bathing and washing the skin was not common back then, so to maintain the pale complexion, they would add an extra layer of foundation over the old one. To remove these layers of foundation, they often used unusual ingredients such as rain water, urine, donkey’s milk and red wine.

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European women also used a white powder referred to as Venetian ceruse, an opaque whitening powder,  made from lead, carbonate, and hydroxide. Mercury was also a common ingredient in skincare and makeup.

Modern Day Skin Care

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Post-Elizabethan period, doctors started observing negative side-effects of lead and mercury and warned against any products containing these ingredients.

Despite all the warnings, the popularity of lead was still seen until as late as 1869. It was from here on that using lead in skin care products was starting to be finally challenged.

The American Medical Association published an article that finally caused the formation of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration  to oversee and regulate skin care products. 

The start of the 1900's, saw the birth of big name cosmetic companies, including L’Oréal, Elizabeth Arden, Max Factor, and Maybelline. They are still known as some of the pioneers in developing modern day skin care and makeup for women.

Recent, Korean skincare influx, has taken over beauty world by storm. The revival of traditional east Asian ingredient-conscious skincare and Korean beauty rituals have forced skincare industry to focus on organic and non-toxic ingredients.

What we see now in skin care is coming to a full circle, back to the ancient Egyptian, Greek and east Asian traditions of organic and locally sourced skin care.


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