The Strange History of Skin and Facial Moisturizers

Mother Dirt

Our biome-friendly moisturizer may be relatively new on the scene, but humans have been craving soft and supple skin since, well, forever. Elementary forms of “skin cream” go back as far as 10,000 years, when Native Americans began rubbing animal fat on themselves to keep warm. 

Here, we walk you through a timeline of the other historical lotions and potions that lead us to where we are today—the practical, the strenuous, and the downright bizarre.

Ancient Greece and Rome (beginning 600 B.C.): The dawn of modern medicine brought with it a range of skincare innovations. Olive oil was chief among them: the goddess Hera would allegedly lather it on herself before seducing Zeus. Athletes in particular used olive oil and fine sand to protect their skin from the sun’s drying rays.

Meanwhile in Rome, barbers dunked spider webs in oil and vinegar and rubbed it onto freshly shaved faces to soothe razor burn. How far we’ve come since then...

Ancient Egypt (200-500 B.C.): Cleopatra was also known to apply olive and palm oils to her skin to maintain her air of soft youthfulness. 

But before you go mixing your own recipe, beware: these lotions were not always so successful. Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut, one of the few female pharaohs, likely experienced death by moisturizer when she adopted a skin regimen that included hefty amounts of toxic tar residue. (A friendly reminder to read those ingredients!)

The first cold cream (200 B.C.): By melting beeswax and rose oil into water, the famed ancient Roman physician Galen created a “cure-all” of sorts, intended to soothe wounded or dry-feeling skin. Thus, an early version of the modern cold cream was born.

Pre-Hispanic Latin America (1100s and earlier): Avocados were the go-to miracle product in Central and South America, dating far back before Columbian times. “The poor man’s butter,” abundant in the southern hemisphere, was (and still is!) said to moisturize and improve skin glow. Is there anything avocados can’t do?

The first facial moisturizer (1100s): Hildegard of Bingen, also known as Saint Hildegard, invented a soon-widespread recipe for softness in Germany. She cooked barley in boiling water, strained it, and placed it on the face, creating a fresh “steamed” feel.

Aboriginal Australia (1500s and earlier): Early Australians turned to emus (yes, the flightless birds) for a moisturizer made from fat pads. It gets weirder: to extract this special oil, natives would hang emu skin on a tree, using the sun’s heat to liquefy and drip the gizzard fat.

Colonial America (1700s): Americans also relied on lard to stay soft. A record of lard-inclusive recipes cites a mixture of hog fat, candle wax, and rose water.

Petroleum Jelly (1870s): Vaseline, patented in 1872, quickly became the base for a wide range of new body and facial moisturizers. Did you know this popular product was originally made from oil-rig residue, left over from machine pumps?

The invention of lip balm (1880s): Dr. C. D. Fleet, a physician from Virginia, introduced the idea of moisturization to our lips with the first balm. It resembled a small candle wrapped in tin foil. A few incarnations later, ChapStick was sold to general stores in 1912.

Body Butter takes hold (1970s): We have The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick to thank for the popularity of “body butter,” a thick, heavy cream made of bean and nut oils. It was an instant bestseller.

The first biome-friendly moisturizer (fall 2016!): After eras of collective experimentation, Mother Dirt created a new moisturizer that is both natural and highly effective. Plus, it won’t hurt your microbiome.

Go ahead, give it a try. As you can see, we would never have gotten anywhere without a little experimentation!

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