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5 surprisingly ancient skincare ingredients

When we think “skincare,” often we think about sophisticated ingredients, extensive testing, and science-backed results. However some of today’s most popular skincare ingredients have been around for thousands of years. Here’s just some of the skincare products from ancient history that wouldn’t look out of place in your bathroom cabinet.

1. Honey

Honey has long been thought to be good for your skin, and it might be in more of your skincare products than you realize. It’s often labeled as fructose, which is just another word for the sugar we get from fruit. Most honey is actually about 40 percent fructose and 30 percent glucose.

Humans have always loved the taste of honey — cave paintings in Spain show we were collecting it from wild bees as long as 15,000 years ago! However bees themselves are much older. The earliest known bee fossils date back 150 million years, meaning our ancestors were probably eating honey before they were even human.

But what about skincare? We know the Ancient Egyptians used honey in almost every aspect of their lives, from baking to embalming the dead and even paying taxes. And yes, they used honey in skincare products too. Nefertiti (1330 BC) mixed honey and olive oil into a nourishing skin treatment, and Cleopatra (60 BC) famously took honey and milk baths to keep her skin soft.

The Greeks also valued honey, and used it as a healing medicine and general tonic. Hippocrates (400 BC) said honey could cure everything from sweating to fevers, and Dioscorides (50 AD) used honey to treat skin infections and sunburn. The Persians also used honey to treat skin conditions. The famous physician Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi recommended honey and vinegar for acne, sores, and gum disease.

Other fans of honey through the ages include:

  • Poppaea Sabina (50 AD), the wife of Emperor Nero, who washed her face daily with milk and honey.
  • Chinese women of the Ming Dynasty Emperor’s Court (1370 AD), who used a mixture of honey and ground orange seeds to treat blemishes.
  • Madame du Barry (1743 AD), mistress of King Louis XV of France, used honey face masks.

So does honey actually work? The answer is yes. Modern science has proved what the ancients already knew — honey has a ton of benefits for our skin. It has antibacterial and antioxidant properties that help heal acne and wounds, reduce inflammation, exfoliate skin, and combat excess oil production. It really is a wonder-ingredient!

2. Aloe vera

Aloe vera is a large succulent plant native to the Arabian Peninsula. It is now naturalized across the world throughout Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Australasia. Today you can buy Aloe vera skincare products, and find Aloe in food and topical medications.

The use of Aloe vera for skincare dates back at least to the sixteenth century BC to an Egyptian medical text, the Ebers Papyrus. Pliny the Elder also recommended Aloe in his Natural History (50 AD). According to the Bible, Jesus’s body was wrapped in the plant before his resurrection.

Alexander the Great's (350 BC) army took carts of planted aloe with them when they went to battle. Cleopatra used it in her skincare routine, and the physician Dioscorides (50 BC) used Aloe as a treatment for everything from stomachache to sunburn.

Today we know that aloe does help alleviate symptoms of many disorders. We use Aloe in all kinds of skincare products, as well as in food and drink. Aloe vera has emollient and moisturizing properties, making it a skincare ingredient that has stood the test of time.

3. Moringa oil

Moringa oil comes from a tree found in the Himalayas. According to Indian traditional medicine, it can treat hundreds of diseases, from paralysis to fevers. It is also used in skincare to promote healing, treat acne, and soften skin.

The tree itself is very hardy — in some African languages it is called Nebedaye (“never die”) — and almost every part of the plant is used in both food and traditional medicine. In ancient Egypt, moringa oil was a skin lotion and medicinal treatment. It was so important, it was even placed in tombs, such as that of Maya (1300 BC). On the site of the ancient Egyptian city of Qasr Ibrim, moringa fruits were found that dated back to the seventh century BC. The Greeks and Romans also valued moringa, and used it from at least 2000 BC.

Moringa is used as a cleanser and moisturizer, and today we know that’s because of its high volume of oleic acid. Oleic acid can penetrate dry skin and add moisture deep into the epidermis, where it is most needed. Moringa also contains proteins and healthy fats, and has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

4. Seaweed

There are over 50 thousand known species of seaweed in the ocean, and they are packed full of essential vitamins and minerals. That's because seaweeds don’t have roots, so they have to get their nutrients from the water. That makes seaweed more potent and powerful than other botanicals. When we use seaweed in skincare — as people have been doing for thousands of years — we get the benefit of all those great ingredients.

Seawater and saltwater treatments have been around for centuries. Cleopatra’s spa used mineral-rich water and mud from the Dead Sea. The ancient Mesopotamians used seaweed as a cosmetic treatment. In China, Empress Dowager Cixi (1870) of the Qing dynasty also used seaweed in her skincare routine.

Today seaweed has many valuable medical uses, especially as wound dressings. Several types of seaweed are also used in skincare treatments, as exfoliants, moisturizers, and antioxidants. Seaweed can help regulate skin oils, hydrate and brighten skin, and treat conditions such as acne and rosacea.

5. Snail slime

Perhaps this entry is more surprising for still being used today, rather than for its long history. Snail slime sounds like a treatment that should have been left in the Dark Ages, but it has real skincare benefits.

The health benefits of snail slime were first officially discovered in the 1960s. An oncologist found that snails produced mucus to promote skin healing, and tests revealed it had the same effect on humans. Now better known as "snail mucin," the slime contains many beneficial ingredients, including hyaluronic acid, glycolic acid, enzymes, peptides, and antimicrobials. These ingredients can help hydrate skin and speed up healing. That means snail mucin can reduce the appearance aging, and treat common skin conditions.

Although our modern understanding of the properties of snail slime only date back 60 years, its use dates back much longer. The Bamiléké people of Cameroon have long used snail slime as a burn treatment. The ancient Greeks also used snail mucus to treat skin inflammation, gastric ulcers, and even coughs and colds. In Italy, there is a long history of snail slime being used on open skin wounds, warts, and calluses.

According to Bruno Bonnemain’s paper, “Snails for Western Health Care From Antiquity to the Present,” Hippocrates and Pliny both prescribed snail mucus for a number of skin complaints, including burns and abscesses. The Roman physician Galen (200 AD) recommended snails to treat hydrops fetalis, a buildup of fluid in newborn babies. Snail slime came back in vogue again in the 1700s, when it was used in various cosmetic concoctions to treat skin disorders.

In conclusion

Many surprising skincare ingredients are as old as time. While the ancients might not have understood why an ingredient worked, they understood cause and effect when they used it. Modern science has let us see what is happening in our skin at a cellular level, and revealing the truth about ancient skincare ingredients.

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