A quick walk through (beauty) history

A quick walk through (beauty) history


A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about true beauty and how it really is in the eyes of the beholder. While I was trolling the internet for background and inspiration, I came across some fascinating information about beauty through the ages.

 The interesting thing is that what beauty looks like in art or in people depends on where you come from and when.   We know a fair amount about two ancient civilizations that valued beauty-the Egyptians and the Chinese.

I’m going to write two blogs about some of the history of skin care and beauty because practices developed somewhat differently in Western and Eastern cultures. Since SunWindSnow’s skincare formulations and my practice are based on integrating both western and eastern medicine, it's fun to explore where and when ideas came from.

There's no universal standard of beauty.  What’s considered beautiful has always varied considerably from culture to culture, especially as it applies to people.

Some of what I learned was shocking, and some of it was horrifying, but mostly it made me smile. Maybe it will make you smile too.

The  human desire for personal beauty goes back to the dawn of time

100,000 years ago early females painted their bodies with red ochre from head to toe. Maybe to advertise fertility?

But it wasn’t just women…

“In 1823, a British professor named William Buckland discovered a skeleton covered in red ochre and surrounded by ivory jewelry in a cave in Wales. Buckland assumed the bones dated to the Roman period and concluded the woman was a prostitute because she wore jewelry.

But it turns out "she" was actually a high-ranking man, perhaps a warrior or hunter, who had been buried 27,000 years ago.”*

While we don’t know a lot about these extremely ancient people, we know that their lives probably weren’t that easy.  But they valued appearance enough to use time and resources to work on their “look”.

Ancient Egyptians started a trend in the west

Women in Egypt enjoyed a status that wouldn’t be seen again for several thousand years. They were allowed to own and inherit property, control their own businesses, and to instigate legal actions. And they loved to make themselves look good. It was a sign of their independence and their strength.

The ancient Egyptians, both men and women, valued personal beauty and makeup and spent a lot of time and effort on their look. They were even buried with their favorite skincare and beauty ingredients so they’d be ready for whatever came next.

Well-to-do women had a skin care routine that most of us would like today.

Here’s a probable sample morning regimen:

  • Dead Sea salts to exfoliate
  • followed by a milk and honey face mask 
  • milk, honey, and rose petal bath
  • floral or spice infused oil to soften her skin
  • If needed, she would use the original version of “sugaring” (using honey and sugar) to remove any unwanted hair.

After this lovely ritual, came the make up.

And the ancient Egyptians loved make up. Both men and women wore it extensively.

The Egyptians were sophisticated chemists and they developed products like eyeliner, eye shadow, lipstick, and blush, that we still use today.

Except the formulas are different.

Thankfully, because here’s where the beautiful all natural routine takes a nasty turn.

Eyeshadow were made by mixing malachite with animal fat or oil to make a rich green eyeshadow.

This would be followed by black kohl eyeliner to form the “Egyptian” eye look we all know. Black kohl worked quite well to help protect the eyes from the harsh Egyptian sun, but it had a huge downside.

Black kohl is a lead-based mineral and it’s (obviously) toxic.

So was the red lipstick made of ochre mixed with iodine or bromine mannite. Overuse of these can lead to serious illness or death. (Possibly the origin of the phrase “kiss of death”.)

The Greeks had a different take

 By the time of the Greeks, women no longer enjoyed as much status. Their role was to be virtuous and the keeper of the home. Their beauty routines followed suit.

Ancient Greek  women used olive oil to soften and condition their skin (good move).

But compared the Egyptians, they took a less is more approach to make up. A little lead powder (yikes!), and a hint of color from a plant-based stain would do it.

What the Greeks did like on a woman was a good strong unibrow.

So much so that woman would use soot to make her eyebrows look thicker and to sketch in a solid connection between her two eyebrows if there wasn’t one there already.

The Middle (aka Dark) Ages

 Again, the influence of culture on women, skin care, and concepts of beauty becomes really apparent in the Middle Ages. Things got a little grim (and smelly).

Early Christian writers put the kabash on women in general.

And especially in the beauty department by associating the use of make up with deception and sin.

The desired look was totally natural and ethereal. Evidence is that women still used skin care and cosmetics, but they took care to make it undetectable.

Bathing was also frowned upon as an unnecessary indulgence. After the black plague, washing with water was generally considered to be dangerous because doctors thought a layer of grime was protective against the “bad air” thought to be responsible for the illness.

Which didn’t do wonders for anyone’s skin.

But the human drive for looking as good as possible slowly won out

 By 1500’s Venice ( the then fashion capital of the western world), make up was back with a vengeance.

 Heavy dramatic makeup with flaming red blush and pasted on “beauty spots” to hide pox scars became the rage. This look lasted well into the 1700’s.

The only problem was both the skin care treatments and make up were poisonous.

A common facial cleanser for upper class European women of this era would contain rosewater, mercury, honey, and sometimes eggshells.

Yes, it left skin feeling soft and smooth.

Unfortunately, the mercury in the cleanser was literally eating away their skin.

After cleansing, a thick layer of Venetian Ceruse would be applied like foundation. This is what made the skin look so white. Very white skin was a symbol of wealth as  it meant that the person was wealthy enough to not need to work. Tanned skin symbolized the opposite.

 Sadly, Venetian Ceruse was made by mixing lead and vinegar. If the make up didn’t kill you or make you sick, it would leave your skin gray and wrinkled after it was removed.

 Which didn’t happen often. Ladies would often leave it on for a week or more before cleaning with the mercury rich cleanser.

Blush was made from heavy metals like vermillon (mercury sulfide). It was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I.

Queen Elizabeth I died at the age of 69. Many believe from lead poisoning (or


The Victorians

 Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837. After years of extravagance in the court of her uncles (the prior king), she ushered in more restrained and “proper” social norms. 

A new era in beauty followed. She declared using make up to be both vulgar and unladylike.

In a reversal of 1700’s France and earlier where a white face and flamboyant blush distinguished the aristocracy from the middle class, now only prostitutes and ladies of the theater wore heavy make up.

For the proper lady clean, scrubbed skin was in.

If you wanted a little color in your lips or cheeks, the socially accepted way to get it was to pinch your cheeks or bite your lips. HARD.


Women did it but they didn’t love constantly pinching themselves. So, they devised some sneaky ways to get a “natural” color to their lips and cheeks.

One of my favorites is they would buy colored wrapping paper – readily available and totally acceptable.

They would cut it into little squares, dampen it to release the dye and use that to give a natural subtle color to their cheeks and lips. Sort of like a stain.

This is how we got here

Around the turn of the 20th century and more so after World War I, the world of beauty really began to change.

The birth of silent movies, the widespread acceptance of theater, and the general emancipation of women (getting the vote and such), made paying attention to beauty a symbol of strength and independence again.

Skin care and cosmetics were for everyone (again). And they were now mass produced so a lot easier to get your hands on.

Widespread indoor plumbing created a market for things like bar soap and skin creams. Companies were no longer using lead or mercury in skin products.

 While it’s easy to question some of the horrible ingredients used for beauty in the past, we have to realize that the toxicity of those ingredients wasn’t recognized. Just as some of the questionable ingredients used in lipsticks and other skin products wasn’t acknowledged until years later.

We’re fortunate to live in a time when we can get clean, effective skin care products that won’t peel off our skin or poison our bodies.

SunWindSnow was founded to combine the best natural and organic ingredients, Eastern dermatological herbs, and botanically based modern ingredients that really work. We’ve packed a lot of benefits into a few simple easy to use products so that you can have a clean, effective skin care routine and plenty of time for your life.

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