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A Brief History Of Skincare Across Different Cultures

History of Cosmetics and skincare products

Cosmetics and skin care products have played a role in our lives throughout history. Early on, man found that natural herbs, leaves, powders and oils could have a “beautifying” effect as well as have a “protective” purpose – protecting against the elements – the sun or serving as insect repellents.

The early starters

Our early Egyptian ancestors were using cosmetics and skincare products about 6000 years ago as can be evidenced in art and archaeological finds in various tombs and pyramids. Eyeshadow, eyeliner, lipsticks and colour on the cheeks were made of metal ore, red ochre and other natural resources ground with water, oil or animal fats to serve as make -up. Kohl – a mixture of lead, copper, burnt almonds and ash was used as eyeliner. The use of henna as body decoration and hair colour was used then as it still used in places like mainly India today. Diverse oils and herbs were used to cleanse and moisturise skin – castor oil, olive oil, moringa oil, or honey. Exfoliation was done with dead sea salts, sand and aloe Vera or orrisroot. Queen Cleopatra’s milk baths have become the stuff of legend – milk with its lactic acid would easily peel off dead skin.

Red ochre

Red ochre was a staple for our early ancestors and in a sense fall into the cosmetics and skincare products category. It is used as body decoration in many cultures across the world. It is in use amongst the Xhosa people of the Eastern Cape of South Africa who are known as “the ochre people”.  The Masai of East Africa, the Moche people of Peru, South America and even the Australian aboriginals have used red, yellow, and brown ochre for painting their bodies for centuries.



Fragrance has been important across many cultures for centuries. The ancient Hebrews made use of essences myrrh, frankincense, or cinnamon mixed with olive oil.  In the Middle East the use of perfumes, scented aromatics and incense was common place and still is.


Olives and Olive Oil

For the mainly Mediterranean cultures olives and olive oil have always played a role as a cosmetic or skin care in the past as much as use as they are in use today. The Greeks used olive oil, honey, milk and yoghurt as anti-aging products. For Hippocrates – the father of medicine – skincare was important and he developed treatment methods for various skin conditions in his work.

Bathing & Spa Treatments

The ancient Romans were particularly noted for making bathing and “spa” treatments a part of the culture. Cleanliness and hygiene were important to them. The creation of aqua-ducts streaming water into public bath houses made bathing accessible to many. So prevalent was the pampering treatment that it is said the word cosmetic is derived from the Latin word Cosmetae after female slaves who took care of ‘beautifying’ needs of the upper classes.

Beauty Painting

Make-up was also seen as a status symbol – in many cultures. In China the tradition of staining fingernails was predominate across various dynasties.  While royals could stain their fingers with golds and silvers or reds and blacks -The lower classes were forbidden to wear bright colours. Beauty “painting” also became a popular trend.


Skin Lightening

Skin lightening in many cultures was seen as a sign of status. Skin-free from the impact of the sun as opposed to the reverse trend now of people actually wanting a tanned look. In ancient Rome there are stories of crocodile dung being used, while in China certain mushrooms proved a remedy. The Geisha of Japan would paint their faces with rice powder to lighten it – and then use crushed safflower petals to paint their eyebrows, eyes and lips and give contour to their eyelines and define their noses. From medieval Europe who can forget the paintings of Queen Elizabeth’s wane look with her “Mask of youth”. People lightened their skin with white powders, white lead paint (often containing arsenic!), chalk, and zinc oxide. So, obsessive was this need for lightening that “bleeding” became a popular and later-found-to-be- dangerous way to achieve this.


Cold Creams & Healing

Rose oil and water melted in beeswax was used as a cold cream in Elizabethan times. Puffy eyes were eased using bread soaked in vinegar and scabs and acne treated with alum and olive oil.  The link between cosmetics and healing was highly considered in the Middle East where cosmetics were considered a branch of medicine. An early medical encyclopaedia, the Al-Tasrif, had entire sections dedicated to cosmetics and “The Medicine of Beauty.”


Food & Diet for the skin

For the Chinese while powders, creams and herbs were popular – nutrition and good circulation were seen as ways to maintain a beautiful complexion. A book written by an Empress of the Qin Dynasty describes how she used seaweed and jellyfish as cleansers and recommended the eating of black beans, sesame seeds and yams to improve the skin.


Cultural Nuances

Every culture has products that are unique to them and part of their cosmetic ecosystem. In India, for example, concoctions of flour or wheat husks with milk were used to exfoliate, amongst native Americans animal fats were used to moisturise, in parts of South America avocado proved a great cleanser and still is, while in many parts of West Africa palm oil remains a much-preferred cleanser and moisturiser.

Modern Cosmetics & Skincare

The past century has been through its changes – where cosmetics veered away from natural products to chemically-enhanced and synthetic products and now seems to be veering back to the use of more green, natural and organic products. The skincare industry today is a multi-billion-dollar industry that heralded in a generation of cosmetic moguls. However, according to research bodies Grand View Research and  Persistence Market Research there is a growing demand for organic skincare, haircare products which is said to reach in excess of Us$15 billion by 2020. It is this  massive organic and natural cosmetics market that Love Your Skin Magazine is all about.


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