The Bizarre History Of Moisturizers And Dry Skin Remedies, From Emu Oil To Body Butter

We've been protecting the moisture in our skin basically since we've discovered sunlight. It isn't just a conspiracy by cosmetics companies: it's protection against the elements and a way to trap your own moisture in your skin, rather than letting it get thirsty and cracked. Can't go wrong with some moisturizer, right?

Well, that depends on your definition of "wrong." How would you like some hog lard smeared on your face? What about emu oil, egg white, bread and milk, or carcinogenic tar? All have been used in the bizarre (and very strange-smelling) history of moisturizers. Before industrially produced face creams came along, it was every woman for herself. The good news? There's some inspiration here for your own skin routine, as long as you don't mind smelling a bit peculiar...

by JR Thorpe

Early Humans: Castor Oil

You may now think of castor oil as a supremely disgusting thing that only has value as a punishment, but we now think that early humans crushed the seeds of the castor plant and smeared the oil on their skins. It seems they may have been onto something: castor oil is now coming back as a natural skin and haircare craze.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Australian Aborigines: Emu Oil

Aborigines have been living in Australia for upwards of 50,000 years, and there’s evidence that they once used a particularly interesting — if hard to find outside the country —moisturizing ingredient: emu oil. Emus are gigantic flightless birds, and the oil is made from a pad of fat on the emu’s back. The oil has been used to treat skin conditions and arthritis as well as a plain moisturizer.

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Ancient Egypt: Murderous Tar

It seems that Queen Hatshepsut, otherwise famous for being one of the only female pharaohs, had an unusual death: she may have been killed by her own moisturizer. A flask containing a salve for a skin ailment and inscribed with her name has been found to be absolutely crammed with tar residue, the nasty carcinogen that’s heavily linked to lung cancer. Moisturizer didn’t exactly have the best start.

Image: Metropolitan Museum


150 AD: The First Cold Cream

Galen, the Greek physician whose ideas were popular all the way up to the Renaissance, seems to have invented cold cream — or at least to have published the first surviving recipe for it. It was a complicated affair, involving the emulsion of water with olive oil and beeswax, but people kept copying the recipe and adding rose and floral oils: it’s still known as cérat de Galien, or “Galen’s wax.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Ancient Rome: Honey, Bread, And Milk

The ancient Romans put their breakfasts on their faces to achieve a moisturized glow. Hippocrates, the doctor who probably originated the Hippocratic Oath, put huge faith in honey, using it for “a fresh and jovial look,” but the most popular moisturizer was a mashed-up mixture of bread and milk applied to the face before bed. Tasty.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Anglo-Saxon England: Leftover Lard And Old Wine

The Anglo-Saxons, it seems, were more concerned with moisturizing their hands than their faces — and used whatever they had to hand. Which was leftover lard. Lots of it, plus some wine too old to drink, and essence of lilies, presumably to make you forget you were slathering your palms in fat and alcohol.

Image: BBC Archives


Late-600s China: Eggs And Vermillion

A favorite skin cream creation of Zhang Lihau, the famous favored concubine of Chinese Emperor Chen Shubao, was apparently a complex concoction involving an egg and powdered vermilion, a mercury-laced chemical made by grinding cinnabar. Reputedly, she extracted the yolk from an egg through a hole, injected vermilion into the hole to mix with the white, and sealed it with wax until it had congealed, at which point it was ready to smear.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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1100s Europe: Herbal Remedies

Hildegard von Bingen, the famous polymath nun, created a recipe for skin cream out of the ingredients in her convent’s garden: “Pulverize ginger with twice as much galingale and a half portion of zedoary. Place in a tied cloth in vinegar and then in wine so it doesn’t become too dark.” Galingale is another type of ginger, while zedoary is also known as white turmeric — so this recipe likely would have prickled a little.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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Renaissance Italy: Bread Crumbs, Egg White & Vinegar

The beauty ideal in Renaissance Italy was pale, perfect skin, and some of the concoctions used to create it were a bit unpalatable. They’d boil iris roots and nettles for face creams —but one recipe, which was recently recreated by researchers, involves mixing egg white with bread crumbs and leaving it to soak in vinegar for 48 hours. The smell is terrible, but the results are apparently quite nice…

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Victorian England: Inside The Skull Of Sperm Whale

A book from the 1890s assures us that “for years a prominent society lady, noted for her exquisite skin and complexion, has used a cream made from the following recipe: 1 oz. Spermaceti, 1 oz. White Wax, 1 oz. Benzoated Lard, 2 oz. Almond Oil, ¼ oz. Camphor Gum.” Spermaceti, in case you’re not familiar with the lingo, is an oozy substance found in the skull of the sperm whale. Charming.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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18th Century America: Hog Lard And Candle Bits

Lard has been an ingredient in skin moisturizers for centuries — and the early colonial Americans weren’t going to be left out of the fun. Recipes from colonial Williamsburg have survived involving the copious use of hog lard, the stubs of white candles, and some strong floral scent. It’s labelled as solving general “dry skin,” but it certainly wouldn’t make you smell particularly rosy.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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1846: The Invention Of Ponds Cream

Pond’s changed moisturizing cream forever. Invented by the chemist Theron T. Pond in 1846, Pond’s Creams were based around healing witch hazel, and were originally marketed as burns remedies until 1904, when they started being sold as “vanishing” beauty creams.

Image: Ponds Archives

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1872: The Invention Of Petroleum Jelly

Vaseline, otherwise known as petroleum jelly, was patented in 1872 — it’s a side product of industrial oil production — and went on to become the basis for a lot of moisturizers in the early 20th century. Even though it’s still pretty widespread, evidence now suggests that it might be harmful, possibly containing carcinogens. Hatshepsut would be proud.

Image: Vaseline Archives

1970s: Body Butter Goes Big

The Body Shop actually invented the product we all know as body butter — and it’s since exploded. It’s defined as a heavy kind of moisturizer that uses bean and nut oils to keep skin lustrous — hence its heavy, butter-like consistency. The Body Shop’s founder, Anita Roddick, cooked it up in her kitchen, and it’s changed moisturizer from a facial necessity to an affordable luxury.

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Today: Moisturisers Go Back To Their Roots

The new phase in moisturizers and skin creams? Going back to basics. Beauty blogs are touting such ancient ingredients as honey, white tea, olive oil, and essential plant oils as simplified moisturizing treatments, avoiding the rising worry about toxins and chemicals in face creams.

So a little bit of history can serve all our skins well — just don’t call me if you’re bringing out the lard.