Blood, Milk, and Fat: Your Handy Beauty Guide from the Ancient World

It is the holiday season; a period of glittery gowns, indoor evergreens, expanding waistlines, and, of course, present giving. In accordance with market study, sales of beauty products escalate through November and into December, suggesting the urge to stay beautiful and youthful is on the top of our Christmas lists. Nevertheless, the rampant messaging of a multi-billion-dollar industry saturated with promises about childhood, lightening, smoothing etc makes buying products a thorny job. What’s the thoughtful gift-giver to perform? This wasn’t always true, in the past, claims the pursuit for skin-deep eternal youth was simpler, though markedly more repulsive.

1. Milk

To start with a few of the more socially acceptable products, milk was an apparent mainstay of the ancient Egyptian toilette. According to legend, Cleopatra utilized the milk of seven hundred donkeys at the area of tub water. The plan appears to have worked as she was able to bed both Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony and was described by Cassius Dio as “a girl 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 a buttocks (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 instrument for maintaining one’s childhood. Modern scientists, on the other hand, would identify the lactic acid in milk as an (admittedly mild) exfoliant, which could perhaps clarify 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 from the mix. Cleopatra, like many ancient Greek ladies, would use rose water for a kind of hydrator. To this very day there are all sorts of beauty products that rely upon the hydrating effects of milk and roses.

2. Fats

Obviously, if you were searching for more potent cleansers and moisturizers, fats have been a more effective alternative. The medic Hippocrates notes over sixty uses for olive oil in his writings, but by far the most common was using olive oil to moisturize and protect the skin. Both ancient Greek athletes and the patrons of the Roman baths used olive oil for a moisturizer and cleaner. They would start by lathering themselves in oil and utilizing a strigil (a curved blade almost always made from metal) to scrape off the dirt, sweat, and oil before bathing. In the Roman baths, the dirt and skin-cell laden oil from men’s bodies could often be gathered for use as a conditioner on women’s hair. The sweat-laden oil out of gladiators was especially desirable in feminine beauty products. The routine was so important that some ancient tombs and burial sites comprise strigils and bottles of oil. Think of it as the first step on your double cleansing routine.

Olive oil was the most frequently encountered cleanser-hydrator, but there have been lots of other fat-based options. The hydrating properties of beeswax is still used now, but animal fats would be the go-to components for ancient soap. Babylonians were making soap from animal fats around 2800 BCE, and similar techniques could 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 women of the medieval period, animal fats, and hog’s fat in particular, were a popular option as a “face mask” to restore lustre to the skin. The prescribed ointment comprised cowslips (a yellow blossom), hog dirt (likely retrieved from the kitchen), and water.

3. Wax

From the Victorian period medics had grown more invasive techniques for penetrating the skin. The creation of the needle saw Austrian surgeon Robert Gersuny experiment with the first dermal fillers. From the late 1800s dermal fillers were made from mineral oil (Vaseline) and paraffin and have been primarily utilized 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 nowadays, the wax used in the Victorian era had a tendency to migrate to other areas of the human body and also to form tough unattractive clumps that could get infected. The popularity of the procedure came to an abrupt halt in the 1920s in part since Gladys Deacon, the then-Duchess of Marlborough and a famed 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 just externally as hand softeners and in lip balm.

Modern fillers are usually made from lipoic acid, but the true gold standard for anti-aging isn’t fillers but operation, something that was not attempted on any scale before the nineteenth century. But ancient Egyptians and modern surgeons agree that beauty and aging start with the eyes and, even more exactly, the eyebrow. What the Egyptians saw as the windows to the soul, Schwarcz explained “what the Egyptians called the windows to the soul are the first thing people consider,” making a blepharoplasty (eyelid surgery) the first port of call in today’s world and an aspirational fantasy in the ancient one.

4. Urine

Historical Roman soap (and face masks) used urine as its principle active “lightening” ingredient. The urine was gathered from public latrines and baskets which served as urinals. Urine was so important in Roman cleansing technologies — such as the tanning industry and laundering clothing– that the Roman emperor Vespasian imposed a tax on it. Arguably the most disgusting use of urine was as a teeth whitener. The Romans thought that it might halt the aging process by preventing tooth decay. As a result, they used it as a mouthwash and mixed it with pumice to generate toothpaste. It was so effective that it continued to be used in toothpaste into the eighteenth century. The best (and best) urine, should you care, was thought to be from Portugal.

For the especially devoted ancient Greek or Roman searching for a bit more heat in their mudbath, alligator and crocodile excrement was a very important ingredient. Prior to getting judgmental about this, bear in mind that snail slime is all the rage these days and there’s a New York spa that specializes in a “bird poop facial.” All I could say is that Romans found it quite effective.

6. Fruit

To come back to the kind of “ancient treatments that sound nice,” fruit was an ancient and effective instrument in the pursuit of eternal youth. The ancient Egyptians used strawberries to cure acne, sun spots, and other skin ailments. The Romans thought that berries could be used to heal all types of medical symptoms, from halitosis to fevers to diseases of the blood. And Dioscordes’ first century C.E. De Materia Medica gives all types of information on seeds, fruit, tree leaves, roots in youth-preserving skincare. From the eighteenth century, once the trend for youth-suggesting-paleness extended to placing lead on the skin, women of leisure utilized a toner made from wine and tomatoes to help keep their complexions light. Madame Tallien, a key figure in the court of the Emperor Napoleon, is thought to have bathed in fresh strawberry juice. Given the quantity of juice that could have been needed we could only assume that she (like most people of the time) didn’t bathe every day.

The concept that fruits lighten and brighten is located is in 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, pharmaceutical potency Retin-A, etc) form a key component of numerous modern treatments. Not all citrus-based treatments were painless: from the 19th century lemon and orange juice-based eye drops were used to brighten the proverbial windows to the soul. Thus, if you’re experiencing any redness following using retinols it might be worse: you might be placing uric acid directly into your eye.

7. Alcohol

Regrettably, I don’t mean drinking it. If you’re not actually older already, in which case Galen advises that you drink red wine to warm the bloodstream, maintain youthfulness, and most importantly, raise your virility and sexual performance. As a preventative method, the effects of fascination and wine have been known as beneficial for softening the skin. Cleopatra (who clearly was an obsession with beauty, not that I’m judging) also took wine baths, and there’s a complete mythology that accompanies the young hands of these women who are employed in the sake industry. Apparently, it was purely by chance that the scientists who isolated pitera (the primary ingredient in cult product SK-II) noticed the “soft and young hands of aged sake brewers.” Vinotherapy (I didn’t make that up) is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment due to resveratrol, a compound found in red wine which is supposed to possess anti-aging properties. It is possible to purchase capsules, choose wine-baths in Caudalie spas, or, if you want to be organic, drink a glass of red wine.

8. Blood

Thus far, the majority of these products are quite easy to acquire. Others, however, are more difficult to obtain. According to legend, the sixteenth-century Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathor p Ecsed, the serial killer commonly known as the “Blood Countess,” bathed in the blood of virgins so as to maintain her youth and beauty. The Countess’s narrative, alluded to in modern horror movies like Hostel 2 (2007), embodies a principle that’s at once ancient and modern: the idea that blood contains the power to preserve youth and attractiveness. Ancient medics claimed the blood of gladiators and virgins had particular medicinal properties, but modern medicine functions with the same assumptions. It is not just tyrants and fashion setters like Kim Jong Il and Lady Gaga who are reported to use bloodstream (in the case of their dictator, virgin bloodstream) to boost health and attractiveness.

Now, beauty by bloodstream has been thoroughly democratized. There are diets tailored to certain blood types. The Swiss face lotion Neocutiss surfaced to much controversy chiefly since it’s derived from cultured foetal cells. Other blood-based beauty treatments are more overt. Kim Kardashian sparked a trend for “Vampire facials,” where blood drawn in the customer’s arm is processed and used to aerate the facial skin, while the expensive facial filler termed the “Vampire face-lift” is cultured from the patient’s blood.

9. Gender

If you don’t have the cash or gut for blood, foetal cells, human urine, or animal fats, then there’s always sex and its own by-products. A number of ancient Roman and Greek medics hypothesized that semen was focused blood, which makes it a particularly powerful emission for the preservation of life. If a young girl didn’t have sex at all she was liable to suffer from a disease known as, slightly self-explanatorily, the Disease of this Virgins. The name was coined from the sixteenth century, and the ailment could leave you squandering away with unsightly greenish pale skin. Completely baseless modern urban legend maintains that ingesting human semen is “great for your skin” and will avert acne. Popular opinion maintains that for centuries the Chinese utilized 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 instance, organically produced bull semen creates the foundation of an intense baldness treatment at an exclusive hairdressers in London.

Some of these may be desirable (or ethical) now, but at least they are organic.

But if you’re thinking of gifting beauty treatments this holiday season, perhaps stick to something that could be returned for store credit.

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