Galen of Pergamon (Aelius Galenus, Claudius Galenus, or Anglicized at Galen), a Roman physician and philosopher in 2nd century C.E., pulled from the earlier medical knowledge of Hippocrates, traveled the Mediterranean studying and practicing medicine, and wrote medical treatises that remain among the top references for classical medicine.
Galen set the stage for a system of medicine that would last for nearly two millennia. Almost 1,000 years after Galenus in the 11th-century Constantine the African brought translations of Hippocrates and Galen as well as other treatises by Islamic medical scholars to the Italian peninsula. In the 12th-century, both the physician Trotula of Salerno, Italy and the mystic nun Hildegard von Bingen of Germany, directed herbal clinics more or less based on Galenus philosophies. Centuries later, in 1633, John Gerard published his famous Herball and shortly after, in 1653, Nicholas Culpeper stamped herbal medicine with the publication of his tome judgments on health and healing, which copied the recipes of historic medicine for use during his time period.
Galenus left us with documentation of some early hygiene and herbal beauty practices of his time in his medical treatises. His 2nd-century cold cream recipe is still used today. The recipe spoken of can be found in Galen’s On Hygiene (De sanitate tuenda), in the Life and Times of Ambroise Pare (1510-1590), and in Culpeper’s 16th-century Herbal. The cold cream (called unguentum refrigerans or ceratum galeni) used by the Greco-Romans, Arab-Sicilians, Medieval Italians, and Renaissance peoples of western Europe is as follows:
“Take of white wax four ounces, oyl of roses omphacine a pound; melt in a double vessel, then powr it out into another, by degrees putting in cold water, and often powring it out of one vessel into another, stirring it till it be white; last of all wash it in rose water, adding a little rose water and rose vinegar.”
When Galen prescribed this recipe it was for the cooling effect it had on the skin as the rosewater evaporates. This is why it is known as “cold cream”. The ratio between the oil, beeswax, and water determines the density of the cream. Use more wax for a more solid cream, use more oil for a softer, more fluid cream.
For an explanation of the modern knowledge on cold cream benefits, cosmetic chemist Joseph Cincotta explains: “Cold creams are very simple emulsions of oil and wax in water… the emulsifiers that hold the cream together are fatty acids which when neutralized forms a soap base and that soap composition is great for removing makeup, cleansing the skin, and calming inflammation. The oil and wax are skin protectants that create a moisture barrier on the skin making the skin feel soft and protecting against moisture loss.”
To put it simply, a cold cream is a combination of oil, wax, and water that is used to clean, moisturize, and heal the skin. The cold cream benefit of removing makeup is just a plus. Using a cold cream on a daily basis has been shown to improve the texture and appearance of skin helping it to feel softer and look smoother.
I use my cold cream daily and it has been the best cleanser all-in-one I could hope for. Sometimes I used oil infused with lavender instead of roses for a deeper healing effect, other times I add orange flower water instead of rosewater for scent. You can customize your cold cream for the benefits your skin needs at that moment.
Here is a list of some skin soothing herbs you can infuse your oil for cold cream with:
Aloe (Aloe vera) has such a strong reputation for repairing damaged skin that it is a frequent ingredient in commercial skin-care products. The leaf’s inner gel has been used for thousands of years. The ancient Greek physician Dioscorides used the gel to treat wounds. The Egyptian Queen Cleopatra reportedly used it a beauty aid. The gel reduces inflammation, itching, and promotes wound healing. Topical aloe reduces the redness and flakiness of psoriasis. One study found an aloe vera cream slightly more effective than a topical steroid. Other studies show promise in relieving seborrheic dermatitis, frostbite, and burns.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis), also known as pot marigold, is anti-inflammatory, promotes skin healing, and inhibits some bacteria. Calendula creams have been shown to relieve skin inflammation. This herb can potentially cause allergic reactions in sensitive people, though not nearly as often as its botanical cousin, ragweed.
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) contains allantoin, a chemical that protects the skin and promotes new skin cell growth. Purified allantoin can be found in some commercial lotions. It’s said to help ‘knit’ cells back together after a laceration or abrasion. Comfrey recommended for external use only because it contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, chemicals which, in large amounts, can damage the liver. These chemicals are higher in the roots and young leaves, and lowest in mature leaves. Both the leaves and roots can be used to make salves. Moistened leaves can be applied directly to the skin as a poultice.
German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is anti-inflammatory herb and may offer help for people with inflammatory skin conditions. A chamomile-containing cream was shown to be mildly superior to a steroid cream in people with eczema. If psychological stress makes your skin flare up, consider drinking chamomile tea, which has a gently relaxing effect. Know that, if you’re allergic to ragweed, you may also be allergic to chamomile (which is a in the same plant family).
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) has garnered popularity as an antimicrobial healing agent. It fights bacteria, viruses, fungi, and it turns out, head lice. It may also have an antihistamine effect, thereby relieve hives. You can also try dotting full-strength lavender essential oil onto pimples. Other phytochemicals, most notably linalool, limonene, geraniol and 1,8-cineole, are responsible for its antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties.