Beauty Tips from History

Concepts of beauty and cleanliness are as old as humanity itself. However, the standards of these two concepts has changed dramatically throughout time and space! Even today, different cultures have different ways to keep clean and beautiful.

Below is a collection of recipes from different eras in history. They are all presented for their humor or educational value. I trust that my readers have enough sense not to try anything dangerous.

Jump to:

Ancient Egypt     Medieval - Elizabethan     17th Century     18th Century     19th Century

Ancient Egypt

Jump to:

Ancient Egypt     Medieval - Elizabethan     17th Century     18th Century     19th Century


An Egyptian Perfume

"A remedy to stop smells in a man or a woman: crushed carob pod pulp is shaped to pellets and the body is anointed with it." 

The carob tree's pods can now be found in some grocery stores as an alternative to cocoa. I've tried it, and it tastes quite good! I'm not sure how well it would work as a perfume, though...

Source: The Ebers Papyrus, 1550BC

Wigs: What You Need to Know (if you find yourself in Ancient Egypt)

It would be a mistake to think that wigs are the realm solely of those who need assistance with their crowning glory.  As everyone knows, wigs can be of great use to those wishing to succeed socially and even romantically; they are used by the young and old alike and should really  be viewed as an additional adornment rather than a crutch. In the well-known tale of the Two Brothers, the evil wife falsely accuses her brother-in-law of making advances to her, claiming that he said, "Come, let's spend an hour sleeping (together). You shall put on your wig."(1)  In the right context, wigs can be as enticing as fine jewelry or a new linen kilt! Make sure you purchase a wig from a reputable wig-maker.  The curls should be treated with a mixture containing enough beeswax to set them,(2) so they do not lose their shape easily.  And, pay attention to style! As with everything, wig styles change; some years the mode is for a mass of short curls, and at other times a longer, swept-back look is in.  You don't want to be caught at a banquet with an outdated wig.


(1) Wilson, John A. Retrieved from on December 17, 2010.

(2) Manniche, Lise. Sacred Luxuries. Ithaca:  Cornell University Press,  1999, p. 129.

Don't Try This At Home: 12th-Century Depilatory

"Place three ounces of [quicklime] in a potter's vase and cook it in the manner of a porridge. Then take one ounce of orpiment and cook it again, and test it with a feather to see if it is sufficiently cooked. Take care, however, that it is not cooked too much and that it not stay too long on the skin, because it causes intense heat." 

This 12th-century depilatory would certainly remove your hair... and your health as well, since orpiment is sulfide of arsenic!

Source: The Trotula, edited and translated by Monica H. Green

On Whitening the Teeth (12th century)

"The woman should wash her mouth after dinner with very good wine. Then she ought to dry [her teeth] well and wipe [them] with a new white cloth. Finally, let her chew each day fennel or lovage or parsley, which is better to chew because it gives off a good smell and cleans good gums and makes the teeth very white." 

After reading through several recipes of truly awful things for your teeth (sulphuric acid, abrasives like pumice and marble, &c. &c.) it was refreshing to come across this one. Our ancestors who followed these instructions probably did have better teeth than their neighbors. Unlike the highly abrasive dentifrices, which wear down the tooth enamel, and the sugary preparations which lead to cavities, the ingredients here are not only benign but actually helpful to oral health.

"Very good wine" (in addition to being an excellent after-dinner treat, so long as you don't over-indulge) contains alcohol just like our modern mouth washes; alcohol kills the bacteria that cause bad breath. Cloth would be soft enough to not damage the teeth, though it wouldn't reach in between the teeth unless you plucked out a single strand. (Just use dental floss; I've found natural fibers break easily when used to floss. And yes, I've tried.)

As to the herbs listed: parsley is famous for improving bad breath. Fennel wouldn't be so bad either; it is a cooking herb that tastes like anise or licorice, and is used in herbal medicine for digestive complaints. Lovage, while not used as often in herbal medicine, is a cooking herb that tastes like celery. I'm not sure it would do your teeth much good, but it probably wouldn't do them harm either. (Of the three choices, I'd pick parsley first-- just as the 12th-century author does.)

To be honest, I was quite surprised to find this little gem of a recipe among all the more harmful ones!

Sources: The Trotula, 12th century; Desk Reference to Nature's Medicine by Steven Foster and Rebecca L. Johnson, 2006.

A depilatory & facial (12th century)

"Take Greek pitch and wax, and dissolve them in a clay vessel. And these things having been dissolved, let a small drop of galbanum be added, [and] let them cook for a long time, stirring with a spatula. Likewise, take mastic, frankincense, and gum arabic, and let them be mixed with the rest. Having done this, let it be removed from the fire, and when it is lukewarm let her smear her face; but let her take care [not to touch] the eyebrows. Let her leave it on for an hour until it becomes cold. Then let her remove it. This refines the skin and makes the face beautiful, and it removes the hairs and renders every blemish well colored and clear.”

This could actually work as a depiliatory, but you're probably safer to stick with a modern, commercially available one. You would have to get the proportions just right or you'd end up with either (1) a gooey, sticky mess or (2) a concoction that would harden too fast and be painful to remove.

The wax is probably beeswax. Galbanum, mastic, frankincense, and gum arabic are all resins that come from trees; they are often used as incense. Greek pitch is also a tree-based resin, used historically to (among other things) weather-proof wood. It is dark and sticky, somewhat like molasses. This mixture would look very odd on a person's face.

Source: The Trotula, 12th century

"For coloring the hair so that it is golden" (12th century)

"Take the exterior shell of a walnut and the bark of the tree itself and cook them in water, and with this water mix alum and oak apples, and with these mixed things you will smear the head (having first washed it), placing upon the hair leaves and tying them with a bandage for two days; you will be able to color [the hair]. And comb the head so that whatever adheres to the hair as excess comes off. Then place a coloring which is made from oriental crocus, dragon's blood, and henna (whose larger part has been mixed with a decoction of brazilwood), and thus let the woman remain for three days, and on the fourth day let her be washed with hot water, and never will [this coloring] be removed easily."

This is an impressive recipe for two reasons. First, the time commitment is formidable: 5 days total of having various substances tied to your head before you can wash it all off.  Second, it just might work! The first preparation (walnut hulls & bark, alum, and oak apples, a.k.a. galls) are all mordants. That is, something that allows a dye to "stick" to the material, in this case your hair; without a mordant, the dye would come right off.  The second preparation contains mostly materials that are used for dyeing cloth, so they would probably work on hair too: oriental crocus is saffron (yellow), henna is a well-known dye (browns, oranges), as is brazilwood (reds, pinks, purples).  Dragon's blood is a red-colored resin, but I am not aware of its being a useful dye.

I am tempted to try this one! ... at least, on fabric first; it is hard to tell what the resulting color would be.

Source: The Trotula, 12th century

"In order to make the hair thick." (12th century)

"Take agrimony and elm bark, root of vervain, root of willow, southernwood, burnt and pulverized linseed, [and] root of reed. Cook all these things with goat milk or water, and wash the area (having first shaved it)."

To my great surprise, this recipe does not seem harmful. (At least, not externally.) Several ingredients are recognizable herbs (vervain is often used for insomnia, for instance) and while others like southernwood should not be ingested, they are not particularly known for causing any external damage or discomfort. All the same, if you want to try this, use as much caution as you always should around new products-- and watch for allergies. As to whether it will make your hair thick... that I really don't know.

Source: The Trotula, 12th century

Sublimate (1552)

"This sublimate is one of the most excellent lotions in the world for whitening the complexion, for it makes the skin white as snow, without any kind of harmful after-effect. Moreover, it does not cause wrinkles, nor does it harm the teeth in any way, but imparts to the face a sheen which looks as natural as if it had been inborn. Its effect is such that, were a member of the fairer sex with blonde or raven hair to have spots on her face and were she to be as much as fifty-five years old, if she were to use this lotion, her forehead and cheeks would look as if she were just twelve years old. It is indeed such an excellent lotion that even if a man were to come very close to the face, he would not be aware of anything unusual, but would believe it was naturally that whit... Furthermore, if a member of the fairer sex were to begin to use this lotion at the age of fifteen, twenty or twenty-five, for the rest of her life her complexion would remain exceptionally beautiful, so that even in her sixtieth year she would have the appearance of being only twenty..."

The first ingredient in this well-lauded lotion is mercuric chloride, and it pretty much goes downhill from there. It includes lead, tin, and mercury, plus the spittle of a young man. And you know it's a bad sign when "it should be put in a mortar which is made entirely from wood, because neither copper nor iron must be allowed to come into contact with it."

Source: The Elixars of Nostradamus, 1552

"A method for getting rid of spots on the face" (1552)

" be used at night so that they disappear completely and do not reappear, except when one continually stays out in the sun. It also rids the face of red moles and blemishes." Take six drachms each of squirting cucumber roots, lily bulbs, daffodil bulbs, the roots of adder's-tongue or cuckoo pint, mallow or ivy with fresh berries, our borax, date stones, bitter-almond kernels and cherry stones, one drachm each of white coral, bean flour, fig-seed flour, crystal, cuttlefish bone, axungiae vitri, rock salt, woodbine, gypsum, whitest marble, gluten and juniper berries and half an ounce of white lead. Grind it to a fine powder and, as far as is possible with the metals, soften it and knead it with very fresh oxgall for almost a whole day. Then make small pills from the mixture, each weighing about one drachm.
When you want to use one, place it on a piece of marble, mix it with fine honey until it is like a salve and is hot. When you want to use one, place it on a piece of marble, mix it with fine honey until it is like a salve and when you go to bed at night, rub your face with it while it is hot. 
When you get up in the morning, boil some beans, but make sure no traces of pod remain and that they have previously been soaked in water until they are half-saturated. While the water is still hot, wash your face with it, then dry it with a sponge which has been moistened with white wine, rose-water and spittle. If you do not want it to have such a sheen, use only the rose-water.
When you look in a mirror you will wonder where the spots on your face have gone. It is suspected that this is what Dioscorides used when the heat of the sun brought him out in spots while he was looking for herbs. I have used it in Savona for the wife, now a widow, of M. Bernard Grass and for the bride of M. Johan Ferlin of Carmignol. You should have seen the wonderful things it achieved in the course of one night. I had intended to use it on several people in the neighbourhood, but I have to say that I live among simple people who have nothing in common with educated people and are extraordinarily inexperienced in all the liberal arts."

While it's interesting to read, don't actually try this one; not only does it have lead, several of the herbs listed are known skin irritants, and did you catch the part about spittle? The note at the end is amusing, too!

Source: The Elixars of Nostradamus, 1552

"To make an oyntment, the most excellent in the worlde, whose vertues are infinite" (1558)

"Than set it [the cauldron] vpon a small fire, and put in three of these blacke Vipers, iij. Todes .x. of these litle beastes, called in latine Tarantulae or Stelliones, which be like vnto Lisardes, hauinge spottes on their backes like Starres, and .l. Scorpions. And if ye can get anie other venimous beastes, put them in quicke, if not at the first time, at the least at euerie time whan ye can haue them: and after you haue well couered and closed the cawdron, giue it but a light fire, the space of .v. or .vi. daies. It shall be good to set the saied cawdron, in maner of a Fornayse, as it were to make Salt peter, or as Sope cawdrons be set: than after, by the space of a day, make the fire a litle greater, vntill all the venimous beastes be broken into pieces, and almost consumed in the sayd oyle, wherinto it should be good, to haue put first, a pot of good white Wine. Than hauing taken the cawdron from the fire and taken all the sayde beastes, presse them or wringe them hard in some canuesse or linnen cloth, weat[...] with white Wine."

I was reading this nice-sounding recipe for scented oil, containing lovely things like lavender, roses, cinnamon, nutmegs... and then I got to this part. I'd rather not put "venimous beastes" in my cosmetics, thank you very much.

Source: The secretes of the reuerende Maister Alexis of Piemount, 1558.

"To make heare as yelow as golde" (1558)

"Take the ryne or the scrapynges of Rubarbe, & stiepe it in white wyne, or in cleare lye: and after you haue washed your head with it, you shall weate your heares with a sponge or some other cloth, and lette them drye by the fyre, or in the Sunne: After this weate them and drye them agayne: for the oftener you dooe it, the fairer they wyll bee, without hurting your head anye thyng at all."

This is one of the few safe-sounding hair dyes I've found. If you're keen to try it, definitely use wine rather than lye! Although the lye would definitely lighten your hair, it would also damage it (besides being very dangerous to work with).

It is amusing that the recipe actually points out how safe it is... they knew quite well how harmful most of the other hair dyes were!

Source: The secretes of the reuerende Maister Alexis of Piemount, 1558

Three aduertisementes or lessons of importaunce to kepe the teeth white and vncorrupt and also a swete breathe. (1558)

"The first is, he that vseth not to wasshe well hys mouth euer when he hath eaten his meales, shal I haue alwayes yelowe teeth & a stinking breath. The seconde is, he that slepeth with his mouth close, hath likewise an euyll breath, and foule teeth."
"The thirde is, that for to maintayne and kepe the teeth faire and white, and a sweete breath, when a man is layed is his hedde, and when he waketh in the mornyng, it is good to purge well the breaste and throte, spitting out all that is gathered together that nyghte: which also is good for the stomacke and heade. And hauing your teeth and breath warme take a lynnen cloth or the corner of the shete, and rubbe youre teeth well within and withoute, to take awaye the fumositie of the meate, and the yelownesse of the teeth gathered together in the night: for it is that, that maketh youre teeth yelowe, and gommes redde, and corrupteth your breath. This is a verie necessarye thing to be knowen, and oughte well to be obserued: It is also good to eate euery mornynge some graynes of Masticke."

These are actually good pieces of advice (mostly).  It is a good idea to wash your mouth after every meal, and to wipe them clean; this author recommends a linen cloth (like your sheet!).  I'm not sure about advice #2, whether sleeping with your mouth open or closed makes a difference.

Chewing mastic is pretty good advice too; mastic is a gum resin (like frankincense) that is still used in the Middle East for cleaning out your mouth, often in the form of chewing gum. You might be able to find it at a Middle Eastern grocery store.

Source: The secretes of the reuerende Maister Alexis of Piemount, 1558

Dress to suit your complexion (1568)

"Let us set the case of one whose complexion is pale but lively; let her beware of the bright colours, except it be of white, as are the greens, yellows, changeables, and bright colours of that sort. Let those ladies whose complexion is wan dress almost alwaies in black. Those who have a certain ruddy liveliness in their faces, which makes them as constant tipplers to behold, let them wear dark lion-tawny or russet. Red is the colour in general the most pestilential and sorts itself to no complexion whatsoever. And contrariwise white agrees well with the most part of ladies, given that they are still in the flower of their youth..."

This text was first written in Italian, by a man who wished to address (and, one suspects, poke fun at) many of the practices of ladies that vexed him. In the form of a dialogue between an older woman instructing her younger kinswoman, he touches on (his opinions of) dress, behavior, cosmetics, and more.

Source: Rafaella of Master Alexander Piccolomini, or rather A Dialogue of the Fair Perfectioning of Ladies, 1568

Nostradamus: philosopher, astrologer, and perfume guru

Most of us associate Nostradamus with portents of the future. But, in 1552 he also published 2 recipe books: one on preserving fruits, the other for producing articles of the toilet. Here is the introduction to a translation of his work:

"TWO BOOKS by the renowned and highly learned philosopher, astrologer and physician, Michael Nostradamus.
In which a true, thorough and complete account is given as to how a disfigured body, be it of man or woman, may be externally embellished, beautified and rejuvenated as well as the correct and proper methods of preparing all kinds of aromatic, precious and potent lotions, powders, oils, soaps, perfumed candles and musk balls for use against all kinds of infirmities. And how, in the second part, all kinds of fruits may be preserved in sugar in the most skilful and delectable manner and stored against a time of need. Originally written by him in the French language; now, however, for the benefit of our fatherland, it has been translated into ordinary German in the most excellent manner by Hieremias Martius, appointed Doctor of Medicine at Augsburg.
"Not to be reprinted - by order of His Imperial Roman Majesty. MDLXXII." (1572)

Elizabethan Sunscreen (1589)

"If the Face be smeared with the white of an Egg, It will not be Sun-burnt. With us, women that have to do in the Sun, to defend their Faces from the heat of it, that they may not be black, they defend it with the white of an Egg beaten with a little Starch, and mingled; and when the Voyage is done, they wash off this covering with Barley-water."

This recipe is interesting, because while you can occasionally find concoctions on how to heal sunburns, this is a rare preventative measure. While there is nothing harmful in it,  I doubt it would work; you are much better-off using modern sunscreens. Remember, no matter how dark your skin is, the sun's UV rays will still do damage.

Source: John Porta, Natural Magick: Of Beautifying Women, 1589, in Latin; English translation 1658.

To make washing balls (1615)

"To make very good washing balls take storax of both kinds, benjamin, calamus aromaticus, labdanum of each a like; and bray them to powder with cloves and orris; then beat them all with a sufficient quantity of soap till it be stiff, then with your hand you shall work it like paste, and make round balls thereof."

Soap formed into scented balls was a popular commodity of the 17th century, and into the 18th and 19th. (And, who has not encountered scented soap today?) This recipe features all vegetable matter: storax and benjamin (aka benzoin gum) and labdanum are resins, calamus and orris are roots, and cloves are flower buds that you probably have in your spice cupboard already.  If you are making this at home, use whatever scented ingredients you like, and it helps to grate the soap beforehand.

Source: Gervase Markham, The English Housewife, 1615

"To perfume gloves" (1615)

"To perfume gloves excellently, take oil of sweet almonds, oil of nutmegs, oil of benjamin, of each a dram, of ambergris one grain, fat musk two grains: mix them altogether and grind them upon a painter's stone, and then anoint the gloves therewith: yet before you anoint them let them be dampishly moistened with damask rose-water."

Perfumed gloves were very popular in the 17th, 18th, and into the 19th centuries.  Recipes for perfuming them abound (and so do writers complaining of over-perfumed gloves!). Many include expensive ingredients like this one: ambergris and musk were expensive then, and today as well-- if you can even find them! The other ingredients shouldn't be hard to find; "benjamin" is an older term for benzoin gum, and nutmeg oil can either be essential oil of nutmegs,  or you can steep nutmegs in some other oil.

Source: The English Housewife by Gervase Markham, 1615

Don't try this at home: "To help a face that is red or pimpled" (1632)

"Dissolve common salt in the juyce of Lemmons and with a linnen cloth pat the patients face that is full of heat or pimples It cureth in a few dressings."

All I can say is... ouch!

Source: Delights for Ladies, 1632

"How to make a soferiagne water" (1653)

This is a rather long receipt, and so is the title! But, I got a kick out of reading the whole thing and thought you would too. (If you can't figure out what "soferiagne" means, say it out loud, voicing a "v" instead of an "f." Ah, the creative spellings of the 17th century!) 


How to make a soferiagne water, that M. Doctor Stephens Physician, a man of great knowledge and cunning did practice, and used of long experience: and therewith did very many cures, and kept it alwaies secret, till of late a little before his death, Doctor Parker, late Archbishop of Canterburie, did get it in writing of him.
The Receipt
Take a gallon of good Gascoine wine, then take Ginger, Galingale, Camomile, Sinamon, Nutmegs, Graines Cloves, Mace, Aniseeds, of every of them a dramme. Then take Sage, Mint, red Roses, time Pellit drie of the wall, wilde Marjoram, Rosemarie, penny mountaine otherwise called wilde Lime, Camomile, Lavender, and Avens, of every of them one handfull: then beat the spices small, and bruise the herbs, and put all into the wine, and let it stand twelve houres stirring it divers times. Then still it in a Limbecke, and keep the first pint of the water, for it is the best: then will come a second water, whichis not so good as the first.
*The sundry vertues and operations of the same many times approved*
The vertues of these waters be these: it comforteth the spirits, and preserveth greatly the youth of man, and helpeth the inward diseases comming of cold, against shaking of Palsie: it cureth the contract of sinewes, and helpeth conception of women that be barren: it killeth the wormes in the belly. It helpeth the cold Gout, it helpeth the toothache, it comforteth the stomacke very much, it cureth the cold dropsie, it helpeth the stone in the bladder, and in the reines of the back: it cureth the canker, it helpeth shortly a stinking breath. And who so useth this water ever anon and not too oft, it preserveth him in good liking, and shall make one seeme young very long, you must take one spoonful of this water fasting, but once in seven daies, for it is very hot in aspersion. It preserved Doctor Stevens, that he lived fourscore and eighteen years, wherefore ten years he lived bedred.


There is a lot going on in this receipt! First of all, it is not one you can legally reproduce (at least in the United States). Distillation of hard liquor is illegal without the proper permits. That's what the "Limbecke" is-- an alembic, used for distilling. However, you can arrive at an approximation of this product by making a tincture instead; that is, by soaking the ingredients in alcohol rather than distilling them. A relatively cheap way to do this is using vodka-- only if you are of legal age, of course! And this would have to only be for your own use, not for sale.

As far as I can tell, the only harmful ingredient in this receipt is the alcohol, unless you are allergic to any of the ingredients.  And, the receipt itself only recommends taking a spoonful once a week ("but once in seven daies").  I'm not sure it would live up to any of the fantastic claims in this receipt, although I'd really like something that "preserveth greatly the youth of man"! (Side note: I like the spelling of cinnamon.)

An alternative, non-alcoholic option would be to put the ingredients in water instead, and let them soak in the refrigerator. It will not last as long as an alcohol base would; be sure you dispose of it if you suspect it has spoiled.

When you're measuring out the ingredients, remember that a dram, also spelled drachm, is an eighth of an ounce. That's about halfway between the weight of a U.S. penny and a U.S. nickel; so, not very much!

Source: Treasury of Hidden Secrets, 1653, attributed to John Partridge.

How not to advertise your breath mints (1696)

The following is from a 1696 recipe book, for what are essentially breath mints, "Perfum'd with Amber, very good for the Mouth." 

"...Take a bit of [the mixture] as big as a Nut in your Hands, roll it to a point, take a Crum at a time, twist it with your Two Fingers, and you'll shape it like a Mouses turd..."

Yes, you read that correctly. And if anyone doesn't know what a mouse's turd looks like, you are quite, quite fortunate and have obviously never had to bleach your entire set of 18th century dishes after discovering them covered in the aforementioned substance. Twice.

Source: The French Perfumer by Simon Barbe, 1696

Powder of Violets, or of Iris. (1696)

"There is nothing else to be done, but to beat the Iris, and pass it through a Sieve: That Powder is very good for Hair, and smells naturally of Violets; there is no other of that Smell, because the Violet has not strength enough." 

"Violet powder" was popular during the 17th and 18th centuries for powdering the hair, a fashion among the wealthy, and then in the 19th century as scented powder to use on the skin after bathing. It comes, not from the violet, but from the root of a type of iris flower: Iris florentina. Today it is called "orris root" and is often used in perfumery to preserve other scents, although it does have a lovely scent of its own.

Sources: The French Perfumer by Simon Barbe, 1696, and The Artifice of Beauty by Sally Pointer, 2005.

Perfumes (1696)

"The Origine of Perfumes is as Ancient as the Creation of the World; when the whole Earth was a delicious Garden, exhaling the sweetest Smells. Art that never Injures Nature, but rather improves it, in succeeding Times collected what that good Mother had scattered in several places to Compound agreeable Mixtures of Sweets: After innumerable Observations upon repeated Experiment, this Art is brought under infallible Rules to its utmost Perfection; by help of such Rules which I had learnt from the best Masters, and made use of a long time, I have collected the Secrets which I now present to the Publick." 

This is the introduction to a 1696 book entitled The French Perfumer. I thought it amusing enough to share!

To Cure Armhole Stench

"First pluck away the hairs of the armholes and wash them with white wine and rosewater, wherein you have boiled cassia ligna, and use it 3 or 4 times." 

Who says our ancestors weren't bothered by body odor? Here is one 17th-century hint on how to combat this age-old problem. The only danger to this recipe is that it might sting if you apply it to broken skin. (You might prefer shaving instead of plucking. Ouch!) Cassia is a relative of cinnamon; in fact, it is often sold as cinnamon.

Source: Hannah Woolley, The Accomplish'd Ladies Delight, 1684