The history of cosmetics – unwrapped

By Matthew Johnston, RPS Museum

‘Removes blotches,’ ‘clears the complexion,’ ‘removes freckles, pimples, and all spots.’

Turn on your TV or open a magazine and you might see these words advertising the latest beauty product, but in fact they come from the Roman writer Pliny the Elder’s description of a substance called crocodilea – the dung or intestinal contents of a crocodile.

As well as its uses in skincare it was recommended as an eye salve, taken internally for epilepsy, and as a pessary for stimulating menstrual flow.

In 2016 the RPS Museum became a partner in a research project on ancient skincare, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Science in Culture strand. Now, as the study reaches its conclusion, the team – including researchers from the Universities of Oxford, Glasgow and Keele – are going to showcase some of the findings in a series of events at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society on 15th and 16th  February.

Using lead in cosmetics
One thing that stands out is the lengths that people will go to in the quest for beauty. As well as crocodile dung, a number of unpalatable and potentially dangerous ingredients have found their way into skincare remedies and cosmetic products throughout the course of history.

The Greeks used lead to whiten and cinnabar – mercury sulphide – to colour the skin, despite warnings from some ancient writers of their dangers. Elizabeth I was also famous for her lead-whitened face. For the Victorians it was eating arsenic wafers  and using arsenical soap  that helped to give the skin ‘the soft glow of the lily’. Even today we see concerns about the use of lead in lip products and other cosmetics, or potential cancer causing agents  such as coal tar and formaldehyde.

Still used today
Not all ancient cosmetic products were quite so damaging. For millennia grains such as oats and barley have been recommended for use on the skin. The earliest known reference to barley as a skin cleanser is in the ancient Egyptian medical text known as the Papyrus Ebers, dating to the 15th century BC. The Roman love poet Ovid’s work On Cosmetics includes barley as an ingredient in a facepack for giving a bright complexion. The Greek medical writer Dioscorides also extols the virtues of oats for the skin, and we still use colloidal oatmeal in skincare preparations today.

Join us on 15th and 16th February

Want to find out more about historic cosmetics?  Register for a one day conference to be held at the RPS in London on Thursday 15 February. This conference features talks by national and international researchers including a guest lecture by writer, TV presenter and ethnobotanist James Wong @botanygeek.  It will approach cosmetics from an interdisciplinary perspective, incorporating elements from the classics, ancient history, archaeology, bioarchaeology, pharmacy and pharmacology. Follow the day on @cosmeticsunwrap.

Visitors to the museum on Friday 16 February will be able to try their hand at making their own cosmetics using oats and other natural ingredients (of the non-toxic variety!) in a practical, hands-on free workshop

Inspired by these two events, the museum will also be launching a temporary exhibition on natural substances in skincare and cosmetics through history.

Join us to find out more about the past and present of cosmetics.

With thanks to:

Dr Jane Draycott, Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Research Fellow in Ancient Science and Technology in the School of Humanities at the University of Glasgow;

Dr Szu Shen Wong MRpharmS, Lecturer in Pharmaceutical Sciences, Keele University

Dr Thibaut Devièse, Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the School Of Archaeology, University of Oxford


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