“Hello Clarice…” – A Brief History of Face Masks

Face masks are an obsession for me… When I’m shopping at the super market or passing the cosmetics shop on my way to work, I just have to buy a few more to add to the ever-growing collection in my fridge. With Vietnamese air pollution and my skin showing how tired I am from kindergartners climbing me like a tree on the regular, these babies are my go-to when I need a boost! But where did these things start out?

Well, they’re not exactly a new trend. The beauty market may be currently booming with new recipes, sheets and a plethora of nourishing ingredients designed to leave your skin glowing, but face masks have been used for thousands of years. Beauty and rejuvenation has always been a top priority of historical ladies – sometimes even being linked to holiness – and the birth of skin care and face masks can actually be traced back to 3100BC!

Archaeological discoveries of beauty and cosmetics in Egypt – ranging from applicators for eyeliner, palettes to grind cosmetics like rogue into powder and recipes for skin care – are perhaps the oldest in the world. The culture surrounding beauty and looking after oneself was just as important then as it is today. There were many serums, face masks and moisturisers available to make at home, and social class didn’t impact this – anyone could be beautiful!

The most important ingredients for facial skin care were milk, honey, oils and alabaster. A paper on Egyptian Skin Care details an ancient recipe for a Derma Care face mask, noting ingredients like natron, alabaster, honey and sea salt all mixed together with milk – it was apparently a popular recommendation to keep the skin soft and youthful. They also used acetic acid from vinegar and sulfuric acid from oil of vitorol as a peeling mask, as well as lactic acid from soured milk and tartaric acid from aged wine.

Imperial Concubines of the Tang Dynasty in Ancient China (607-907 CE) were also known to create creams and face masks to keep their skin glowing. Yang Guifei, one of the “four great beauties” of Ancient China apparently made her own face masks that included cream of almonds (to lighten and lift the skin), or white jade, lotus roots, pearls and ginseng. The mask was mixed into a paste or cream, applied to the face and left to harden through air-drying; it was then washed off. Yang Guifei’s masks became so popular that many ladies in court took to using her recipes to improve their own skin.

Imperial Consort Yang Guifei

In Roman Times, women regularly used face masks with similar ingredients to the Ancient Egyptians – oils, honey, vinegar – but they chose to include some pretty out-there ingredients such as animal placentas and poop from birds like kingfishers or from cows, sheep’s sweat and bile. Swan fat was also a must-have to get rid of pesky wrinkles. Think I’ll pass on those ones, thanks… It was a time when makeup was seen as a “trick” and women purchased cosmetics and skin care with “adultery in mind”.

As perfumes and cosmetics became more and more popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, famous women like Marie Antoinette still took the time to look after their skin. She famously whipped up face masks made from egg whites, milk, lemon juice and Cognac to keep her skin radiant – sounds lovely (and boozy)! Cosmetics became heavier, and it was important to take care of the skin underneath all of those powders and paints.

The Victorians created some interesting inventions to look after the skin; including a special face mask made of Indian gum that adjusted to the face of its user. It was uncomfortable, and proved dangerous to wear to bed due to the possibility of suffocating in sleep. Raw meat was also a common face mask used in the 19th Century, made popular by Empress Sisi of Austria – who was known to wear cuts of veal to keep her skin young, supple and glowing. Again, hard pass.

The face masks of the Victorian Era weren’t all mad, in fact they used ingredients like rose water, almond oil and beeswax creams as well.

And so here we are in 2019, buying boxes of Lululun Mask Sheets by the dozen from Amazon – a far cry from animal placenta and vinegar! The evolution of skin care certainly is an interesting one, I’m beyond glad that I don’t have to mix up any of those ancient ingredients when I finish a long day of work…

If you enjoyed this historical tidbit, or are interested in the history of beauty, make sure to click the Follow button to keep updated with Haggis Talks posts!

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A twenty-something preschool teacher / professional hokey pokey dancer, collecting stories about women's history, historical fashion and beauty, and self care of the past.

One thought on ““Hello Clarice…” – A Brief History of Face Masks”

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