Face Cream History
Caring for our skin—especially the highly visible skin of our faces—is a universal concern. Our faces are the way we show ourselves to the world. It’s only natural that people of all societies would want the skin of their faces to be in the best possible condition, and that means soft, moisturized, smooth, and as wrinkle-free as possible. And people of the past clearly felt the same. While it’s likely that even when we lived in caves, we occasionally soothed our dry skin by rubbing fat into it, the earliest evidence of face creams comes—like most cosmetics—with the ancient Egyptians.
The Best Night Creams of the Ancients
Early Egyptians used cosmetics and face creams not only for religious rituals and mummification, but also for everyday life. Like we do today, the Egyptians used creams and cosmetics to improve their looks and to protect their skin from damaging elements, like heat and wind. In ancient Egypt the best night cream recipes contained not only moisturizing plant oils and animal fats, but also frankincense, known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Ground precious stones were also sometimes included, possibly for protection against evil spirits, but most likely also enjoyed for the lovely sparkle they left on the skin.
Ancient Romans also took care of their skin. In fact, the very word, “cosmetics,” comes from the female slaves of ancient Rome, the “cosmetae,” who were responsible for creating the creams and cosmetics used by the household. Unfortunately some of these products contained dangerous white lead, used for the whitening of skin, which at that time was a mark of wealth. Having pale skin indicated that a person didn’t have to toil outdoors.
A fascinating find took place in 2003 at the excavation of a Roman ruin which allowed us a peek into the past, not only at the Roman recipe used for what was likely one of the best night cream ingredients of the time but also at the cream itself. A small Roman tin pot was removed from the site completely intact. When the lid was opened, inside were the remains of what was likely the best night cream of a wealthy Roman woman. The cream inside the ancient pot still bore the fingerprints of its long-dead user. Analysis of the cream shows that it was a combination of animal fat—probably from sheep—plant starch and powdered tin for pigment. A tinted face cream!
The Best Night Cream Ingredients of the Past
As early as the 17th and 18th century, what was considered the best night cream for women was a mixture of beeswax, sweet almond oil, and rose water. These did not have a long shelf-life, which prevented them from being produced commercially and sold in stores. Instead, these moisturizing night creams were either made at home or blended on request by a local pharmacist and sold in small decorative pots, many of which have turned up in Victorian period trash heaps.
Many European women in this time period used bleaching products in their night creams or slept with buttermilk on their faces, as clear white skin was still a valued sign of beauty and privilege. The goal of what was considered to be the best night creams of that time period was to remove any signs of sun exposure. Freckles and tanned skin were a sign of the lower class who had to work outside of the home.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that night creams began to be manufactured and marketed. The reason this became possible was the use of petroleum jelly and mineral-based oils rather than almond or olive oil which would turn rancid. The stable quality of mineral-based moisturizers meant that these creams were now given a lengthy shelf life.
Addition of Anti-Aging Ingredients to the Best Night Cream Ingredients
For most of the twentieth century, moisturizing ingredients such as oils and emollients were the most important ingredients in night creams. Keeping the skin soft and supple remained the most desirable result of night creams even when the popularity of pure white skin for Europeans began to take a back seat in favor of a more tanned and outdoorsy appearance. Trends had begun to favor a tanned look as a sign of wealth and health, because successful people no longer stayed indoors languishing on a chaise lounge, but instead had leisure time to enjoy outdoor activities. Spending time in the sun increased the need for moisturizing night cream to replenish the skin after sun exposure.
By the end of the 20th century, science began to play a role in creating what is still considered to be the best night creams, with anti-aging ingredients such as retinol, hyaluronic acid, and many other ingredients promising to turn back the clock.
Since beautiful skin is almost always equated with health, and good health is innately a large part of what we find attractive in a potential mate, taking care of the skin has always been important in human culture, and it’s likely to remain an essential part of human culture in the future.