6 Ridiculous Historical Beliefs About Skin

Skin is skin, right? Well, not so much — throughout history it has been considered a signifier of class, spirituality and health, and has been subject to basically every treatment under the sun. (A cow urine spa treatment, anybody?) The ancient Egyptians gave their gods different skin colors to evoke their various essence (Osiris, for example, was green to show his power over the natural world), while, according to some historians, the second wife of Emperor Nero in ancient Rome apparently had an entire herd of donkeys follow her entourage so that she'd always have a fresh skin-purifying donkey-milk bath on hand. And there have been times when skin's treatment and status in a society has slipped from the kooky-yet-understandable into the just plain weird.

Until the practise of écorché (removing skin from human figures for the sake of anatomy drawings and medical understanding) became popular in the 15th century in Europe, we weren't entirely sure how skin-coverings interacted with the muscle, organs and bones underneath. And we're still always reaching new frontiers in understanding how skin works: stem cells are now the focus of possible skin rejuvenation following severe burns, while the National Association for the Preservation of Skin Art has been founded to allow the body art of the deceased to be preserved for their relatives after death. (Hey, good tattoos should live on, right?) There's always a new, faintly disgusting chapter in our relationship with skin on the horizon; but history's made a very good start, from dog-skin transplants to cold, hairless female pores.

Here are six of the strangest beliefs about skin in human history. No matter the era, nobody could quite leave their epidermis alone, it seems.

1. Women With Freckles Are Unclean

If you had freckles in ancient Rome and were interested in spirituality, you may have been up a creek without a paddle. Pliny the Elder, the naturalist whose Natural Histories are full of spectacular bits of advice and medical insight, points out something interesting about beliefs of the time: if you were a woman with "lenticula" — which literally means lentil-shaped but also apparently referred to freckling on the skin — you weren't allowed to participate in any magical rites, as you were regarded as "polluted," with your skin perhaps showing signs of an inner impurity.

Magic existed alongside, and sometimes in contradiction to, the major religions of ancient Rome, with people happily wiling to call on the gods while also wearing amulets or invoking ghosts. For Pliny, magic was largely nonsense, but he still faithfully recorded how it apparently worked — including the fact that spirits just didn't listen to women with freckles. Rude.

2. Cow Urine And Crocodile Intestine Are Good For The Skin

A lot of ancient skin care isn't actually that far off the mark; Tatcha, a Japanese skin care company, once kindly sent me samples of the range inspired by centuries-old geisha skin ingredients, including rice bran and green tea, and the science behind it seems fairly solid. And the 1500-year-old Ashtānga Hridaya, a book of ayurveda, recommends clarified butter (or ghee) as a skin conditioner, something which is now becoming popular with beauty bloggers. But there were other formulations from the time that we now think of as, well, a bit wider of the mark. Also, disgusting.

Pliny the Elder is once again a treasure: he records, with apparent fascination, some seriously full-on skin care recipes used by women of the time in Rome. Ingredients included fat from a "sow that had not yet littered" for smoothing the skin, and a choice of bull dung or essence of crocodile intestine to make the cheeks rosy. Interestingly, another ancient ayurvedic practise, the use of cow urine as a skin treatment (known as gomutra), has been traced to thousand-year-old documents, and remains popular in some rural regions of India and in specialist shops in cities. The jury's largely out on whether this is actually a good idea, though.

3. Causing Blisters With Irons Or Acid Will Improve Your Health

Medieval humoral theory was a hugely dominant part of medicine for hundreds of years, which is unfortunate, because it's extremely weird. Basic concept: everybody is made up of a balance of four "humors" — blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm — and a lot of health problems are caused by an "imbalance" in those substances. This is what lay behind the trend for bloodletting, which was supposed to stop an over-emphasis on blood in the body; but it also had some fairly nasty implications for skin.

If you had particular illnesses in the medieval period, like high fevers, paralysis or asthma, doctors might try to "draw out" the problematic "humors" by blistering your skin with hot irons or acid. No, really. The fluid in the blisters was supposed to be full of the problematic "humors," so it was periodically drained and then inflamed again. The entire theory was called "counter-irritation", and it pretty obviously did more harm than good. They also did this with skin wounds: pus in a wound was supposed to be good and useful (the Greek physician Hippocrates called it "laudable"), so they'd irritate injuries as much as possible to eliminate bad humors and help health. It should go without saying, but this is a terrible idea, and should be attempted by literally no one.

4. Replacing Human Skin With Dog Skin Is A Valid Medical Procedure

This is a fascinating episode in medical history (even though it's extremely doubtful that it actually happened). Cyril Elgood, who was a British physician and honorary doctor for the Shah of Persia in the early 20th century, collected a bunch of stories about Persian medicine in the Safavid period, from 1500 to about 1750. And one of his stories is both incredible and, let's face it, not for the squeamish:

"In Herat a certain person had the whole of his head covered in a bad eczema. He could get no satisfactory treatment. A certain Indian surgeon, named Master Ala-al-Din, who was then living in Herat, administered to him an anaesthetic and excised the whole of the skin of his head. In its place he applied the fresh skin of a dog. This he sewed up tight and applied plasters and ointments..."

It's not exactly clear whether this was a) successful or b) truthful, but you have to give the enterprising surgeon a round of applause for trying something so extravagantly bonkers.

5. Female Skin Is Usually Too "Cold & Moist" To Produce Facial Hair

Female skin in medieval and early modern Europe was considered to have its own particular characteristics. The general perspective was that male bodies were more innately "hot" and dry, capable of producing more body heat, while women's were innately colder and moister. This didn't just have implications for medicine: it was also a way to discuss body hair.

"Women's innate coldness," according to Gender And Christianity In Medieval Europe , "made them unable to form the vapours needed to open the pores and then solidify into hair upon contact with the outside air." That's right: female skin was too cold for hair growth, which was apparently created via steam inside the body, which solidified in the pores. And apparently you could tell a woman's temperament by how much hair she had on her body, according to the sixteenth-century Spanish doctor Juan Huarte:

"Having a lot of body hair and a bit of beard is a clear indication of low levels of coldness and moisture… and if the hair is dark then even higher levels of heat and dryness are present. The opposite temperature creates a woman who is smooth, without beard or body hair. The woman of average levels of coldness and moisture has a little bit of hair on her body but it is light and blonde. Of course, the woman who has much body and facial hair (being of a more hot and dry nature) is also intelligent but disagreeable and argumentative, muscular, ugly, has a deep voice and frequent infertility problems."

So there you go. Hairy women evidently have warmer pores. We've all learned something today!

6. Very Light Or Very Dark Skin Meant That One Was Well-Suited For Slavery

This extraordinarily racist theory is pretty unique in history, in that it equates extremity in skin tone with "badness". It originated with the Persian polymath Avicenna, who contributed to global understandings of medicine and Arabic philosophy but was, unfortunately, seriously backwards on race relations. According to him, being too close or too far from the sun directly impacted both your skin color and your temperament. First in the firing line were Eastern Europeans and people of Slavic descent: their "excessive distance" from the sun was revealed in their paleness, and indicated that they were "overcome by ignorance and dullness, lack of discernment, and stupidity."

It didn't stop there, though. The repulsive theory went the other way, too: people with black skin apparently spent too long in the heat of the sun, giving them a "hot" temperament and plaguing them with "lack of self-control and steadiness of mind", "fickleness, foolishness and ignorance." To Avicenna's mind, these meant that both the very white and the very black were mentally suited for slavery. It's a ridiculous, vile, ignorant argument —and, unfortunately, one that most of us have heard variations on in our lifetimes.

Images: Vesnuschki, Maria Sibylla Merian, Deutsche Fototek, Johns Hopkins University, British Library, Felix-Edouard Guerin-Meneville/Wikimedia Commons