When thinking about natural skin care and cosmetics in the Middle Ages, we may assume that they would have been considered meaningless in a period of poverty, tyrannical monarchy and disease.
Death rates were high, life-span was short and the possibility of sickness great. For those fortunate enough to survive and those living within these conditions the preoccupation with disguising skin ailments and maintaining a youthful, healthy appearance became very significant.
Ideals of beauty in the Middle Ages.
Much like today, women used cosmetics to achieve the preferred look that was valued in the time period. Women wishing to appear youthful used botanical mixtures to create a clear, smooth complexion and a healthy flush of the cheeks.
Keeping up with beauty standards was important for a woman living in the Middle Ages and cosmetics were often a marriage saver. Women who were sickly looking were encouraged to wear make up to stop their husbands from committing adultery!
Men were also concerned with signs of aging and would apply treatments and dyes to the hair to treat baldness and signs of grey, fighting the appearance of age progression.
Both men and women aimed to achieve a clear, pale complexion to appear wealthy and privileged. Only those of means and in the aristocracy would be able to avoid a tan as they did not need to work outside.
This look was accomplished with the use of white makeup which would either be a lethal and highly poisonous mixture of white lead and vinegar or the safer option of wheat flour or crushed lily root applied directly to the skin.
The Trotula: the beauty bible of the Middle Ages.
In the 12th century a set of three texts was released called the Trotula, a medieval medical guide aimed at women’s conditions, treatments and cosmetics. It gained large popularity during the Middle Ages as it educated the reader on herbal remedies for female ailments and the enhancement of a woman’s beauty through makeup, hair and skin treatments.
To maintain the beauty standards of the times the Trotula informed women how to treat their hair and skin using natural sources such as roses, liquorice root, nutmeg, marshmallow root, walnut and murtleberry. A number of recipes and ingredients were provided for different purposes – from rosemary for a radiant complexion to willow root for maintaining healthy hair. These were all natural cosmetics and often good for the skin.
The use of makeup was encouraged and the suggestion of red lilies to create a rouge and a recipe for soft, colored lips using honey, beeswax and natural dyes and plant extracts appear in the texts.
How effective were medieval cosmetics and are they relevant today?
Today we are familiar with the ingredients used in middle age cosmetics as some of the ingredients are still used in a lot of natural cosmetics today.
In the Middle Ages people relied more freely on the earth, turning to nature for remedies and beauty fixes. Our modern day knowledge and skin care research shows that what our ancestors were using centuries ago really was beneficial to their hair and skin.
Today, companies producing natural products recognize the benefits of using natural ingredients such as beeswax, rose water and other plant extracts used in cosmetics hundreds of years ago.
Of course, during the Middle Ages and before skincare and medical research was recognized, effective use of botanicals would have been by trial and error. That sweet smelling flower in the field may have looked beautiful, but it could be highly poisonous or cause severe skin irritations.
A good example would be the frequent use of the highly toxic plant Bella Donna in the historical development of cosmetics. This poisonous plant was used as a natural pupil dilator to make women’s eyes appear large and alluring which often resulted in blindness and other dangerous side effects.
Modern natural cosmetics.
Today’s natural cosmetics and beauty treatments must be certified as safe for cosmetic use in compliance with the Cosmetic Product Enforcement Regulations, which also requires all ingredients within the product be clearly stated to avoid allergic reaction on an individual.
Modern natural cosmetics are made using combinations of natural extracts mixed with natural emulsifiers and carrier agents which results in a formulation that doesn’t separate, and is an overall more effective and long lasting product that will not form mold or develop bacteria.
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