Ancient Roman Skincare: What Actually Worked?

Probably know best by his work The Metamorphoses, the famous Roman orator Ovid, born in 43 BC, discussed current social and dermatological practices in the Medicamina Faciei Femineae (Cosmetics for the Female Face). Ovid describes how and why a woman should take care of her skin outlined in elegiac couplets – a style of lyric verse traditionally reserved for love poetry. From his writings, he defines four common ailments along with four mixtures for a solution including a skin whitener, a cure for pimples, one for blackheads, and a poppy mixture for a red blush (1). Although these exact ingredients and prescriptions may not be used anymore, a key component is still commonly used in modern skincare today: honey.

IMG_2576.JPGHowever! Honey was not originally intended to be used for the benefits presented, but to adhere the other ingredients together! From this, the Romans saw results. Big time. Reason being, honey is filled to the brim with natural antioxidants, warranting moisturizing and anti-aging benefits. Also, honey is a known natural antibiotic making it wonderful for acne prone skin, a humectant, meaning the molecule itself holds and retains water moisturizing skin for hours on end, and a finally reparative, as it can help heal sunburns, reduce oxidative damage.

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Moreover, this may come as a surprise to you, but the Romans also commonly used, as well as today in many Asian skincare products, sheep (and sometimes human!) placenta. Yes, you read that right. Placenta. To a non-skincare enthusiast you may cringe and throw up a little in your mouth, because it’s fairly difficult to understand. It’s like that women who went viral for using semen on her face as a facemask (yeah, crossing the line much??). Placenta’s usefulness derives from two sources: stem cells found within the placenta or in an extract formulated into a serum for regular use. From this, a sheep’s placental extract can help give anti-aging benefits and help calm acneic skin from over-exfoliation.

Although crushed poppies may no longer be the main ingredient in blush, or barley as a cure for pimples as suggested by Ovid, ancient skincare wasn’t entirely flawed with useless ingredients. However, with the lack of scientific skincare knowledge known to the Romans, I personally think they did one heck of a good job.

 

  1. Ali FR, Fox J, Finlayson AET. Medicamina Faciei Femineae: Roman Skin Care. JAMA Dermatol.2013;149(5):591. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2013.350
  2. Tenerelli, Mary J. “Ancient Ingredients with a Modern Twist.”Global Cosmetic Industry, vol. 165, no. 6, 1999, pp. 34, ABI/INFORM Global.

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