12th-Century Hair Cleanser from Salerno


A woman combing her hair.
Paris, circa 1400, from a pen and ink drawing in the Staatliche Museen, Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin.



I’ve been experimenting with some of the recipes in the Trotula, a manuscript on women’s medicine that originates from the 12th century, but was copied and used the following centuries. It contains recipes for beauty, hygiene and health. My favorite is recipe #248:

When she combs her hair, let her have this powder. Take some dried roses, clove, nutmeg, watercress, and galangal. Let all these, powdered, be mixed with rose water. With this water let her sprinkle her hair and comb it with a comb dipped in this same water so that [her hair] will smell better. And let her make furrows in her hair and sprinkle on the above-mentioned powder, and it will smell marvelously.


The herbs can be found easily in organic food stores, except for the galangal which I had to buy online. The watercress may also be hard to find, but you can always grow your own.

I bought the herbs already dried and had to grind them myself. That didn’t turn out perfectly – they didn’t grind down to that fine powder I had hoped for. It still works fine when I use it in my hair, but small bits of herbs can be seen if you look closely. If this bothers you just grind the mixture down further with a coffee grinder 🙂

You use it as you would use a modern dry shampoo (but it’s wet!). Think of it as a leave-in cleansing conditioner. After mixing the powder and rosewater, part the hair and sprinkle the mixture lightly, repeating the process on different parts. You shouldn’t use a spray bottle because the herbs will clog the valve inside. After you sprinkle all over, then massage the sprinkled mixture into the scalp, running your hands from the roots of your hair down to the tips as well as you can. After this, comb through your hair and then it’s ready to be styled.



Next, I will try this recipe from the Trotula:

If, needed, you wish to have hair soft and smooth and fine, wash it often with hot water in which there is powder of natron and vetch.”



Green, M. H. (Ed.). (2001). The Trotula: a medieval compendium of women’s medicine. University of Pennsylvania Press.

2 thoughts on “12th-Century Hair Cleanser from Salerno

  1. That sounds lovely. What proportion of the various herbs did you use? I would think the cloves would overpower everything if it was equal parts. For the watercress, did you use dried leaves or the seed?

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