Beauty & Health


From the time of the Romans to the Renaissance Italians, cosmetics were heavily used to achieve the ideal beauty standard du jour. Some Roman cosmetics contained poisonous lead and other uncouth ingredients (i.e. crocodile dung). Romans used skin cleansers made of orris root, rosewater, honey, eggs, and vinegar. They bathed routinely and then had their skin oiled, scraped, and tweezed. Romans were heavy perfume users, favoring myrrh, cassia, cinnamon, and roses. Many beautiful Byzantine jars of pottery and glass have been found that held perfumes, cold creams, and rouge.

Roman women used lead to exaggerate the whiteness of their skin. The same lead crust (which grows on lead when exposed to ammonia) was used for white paint. Sadly, this caused deterioration of the skin and health of the wearer. Lead was also used in eyeliner, as it was made of kohl containing galena (pure lead) dust. To give red tones to the cheeks and lips, Roman ladies used red plants and animal fats. They also bleached their hair with lye and henna to make it red or blonde.

In the middle ages the madder plant was used as a red tint for lips, cheeks, and nails. Early medieval texts focus on washing and hygiene for beauty. The Trotula Texts of the 11th Century recommend bathing in seawater and using herbs for cleanliness and deorderizing purposes. Hair braiding and jewelry were used to accent natural beauty. Crusaders brought back many new ideas about cosmetic enhancement – perfumes, eye colors, and hair colors. Perfumes, spices, and incense were attractive and healthy. Scented soaps, laundry, and strewing herbs served to enhance the atmostphere of medieval homes as well as provide antibacterial and antiviral benefits.

Medieval Europeans also valued white skin and red cheeks. Wealthy women were able to achieve these by use of cosmetics. Basic foundations was made from taking white powerder and mixing it with rosewater. One recipe from the 13th Century calls for soaking sprouted wheat in water for two weeks and straining and grinding the resulting powder. Ceruse (white lead) was also used for white powder. Madder and brasil wood  (also used for red cloth and paint dyes) soaked in vinegar made tinted face stain. The resulting liquid could be thickened with animal or vegetable fat and wax.

Rosewater was the basis for a plethora of perfumes and cosmetics. Lavender or violet waters were also popular. Any flower petal could be boiled in water and distilled to make a concentracted liquid. Distilled flower water was used in place of plain water for all cosmetic recipes. Wine was also a common liquid base, as well as vinegar.

Sources: Renaissance Woman, Artifice of Beauty, History of Cosmetics, All Things Medieval


Ideal Beauty & Death by Vanity

Caterina Sforza and her Experimenti Recipes (handout link)

Scents and Sensibility

Scented Hair Powder

Historical Rouge

Apothecary/Beauty Products From Historical Recipes



Below I have copied a recipe from De Ornatu Mulierum for scented powder and water for the hair. I plan to redact this recipe and will post comments on the results at a later date. If you try this one at home let me know how you liked it


Recipe 248

But 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.


First published in 1548, On the Beauty of Women by Agnolo Firenzuola purports to record two conversations shared by a young gentleman, Celso, and four ladies of the upper bourgeoisie in the vicinity of Florence. One afternoon Celso and the ladies consider universal beauty. On a subsequent evening, they attempt to fashion a composite picture of perfect beauty by combining the beautiful features of women they know. The standards of beauty established in the garden give way to the artistic, creative imagination of the human spirit, and the group’s movement from garden to hall seems to echo the dialogue’s movement from Nature to Art, from divinely to humanly created beauty.

A summary of my findings in this treatise will be posted here soon.


Two works on materia medica have been translated into English (The Formulary of Al Kindi and that of Al-Samarqandi) and are available. From them it can be seen that the practice of herbalism was practiced at a high degree of skill.

  1.  Levey, M. 1966. The Medical Formulary or Aqrabadhin of Al-Kindi. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.
  2. Levey, M. & N.Al-Khaledy. 1966. The Medical Formulary of Al-Samarqandi. Philadelphia: Universityof Pennnsylvania Press.

The school of Salerno or Salernum (11th to the 12th century) in Italy was a famous and influential medical and health center, epitomized by the work of the Christian physician, Constantine the African, who is generally credited with the introduction of Arabian medicine into Europe. Two works (in English) are notable, Experiments of Cohpon and the famous poem of health, Regimen Sanitatis Salerni.

  1. Ordronaux, J. 1870. Code of Health of the School of Salernum. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.

Some popular medicinal herbs were:

  1. Elderberry–Antiviral, anti-inflammatory, diuretic, astringent, alterative.
  2. Rosehips–Anti-inflammatory, nutritive, diuretic, laxative.
  3. Sage–Stimulate, antibacterial, tonic, diuretic.
  4. Plantain–Refrigerant, diuretic, deobstruent, astringent.
  5. Calendula–Stimulate, diaphoretic, anti-inflammatory.
  6. Comfrey–Demulcent, mild astringent, expectorant, anti-inflammatory.
  7. Yarrow–Antiseptic, antibacterial, hypotensive, hypoglycemic, astringent, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, emmenagogue, tonic, bitter.
  8. Nettle–Diuretic, astringent, anti-inflammatory, nutritive, alterative, tonic
  9. Apple –Astringent, nutritive, digestive.

A List of Cosmetic and Healthy Remedy Ingredients (from Madame Isis’ Toilette)


Alkanet root Cold, or blue-toned red pigment coming from a plant, Dyer’s bugloss Considered safe and is used today as colourants both in makeup and food.

Ashes, as in what is left after a fire. Could be used as grey pigment in hair powder.


Bees wax A natural wax produced by honey bees. Melts well into oils and is often used as base for creams. It isn’t absorbed by the skin, but doesn’t clog the pores and softens and protects. Safe.

Beet root Bright red root vegetable.

Benzoin resin Or Gum Benjamin. Despite the gum, which indicates that it is soluble in water, it isn’t. Used as incense and as a fixative in perfumes. Vanilla-like scent. Safe.

Bergamot A citrus fruit that is shaped as an orange, but yellow. Bergamot essence is used in the perfume industry and to give flavor to foodstuff. Powdered bergamot probably means the powdered peel, which is used in aromatherapy today.

Bismuth Pearlecent white pigment. I have always blithely assumed that bismuth and lead white are the same. However, this recipe makes a distinct difference between them and reading up I find that it is a metal on it’s own, though in the 18th century it was often confused with lead and tin. It is not at all as poisonous as lead, for example Bismuth subsalicylate is used even today in some medications and Bismuth oxychloride is used in cosmetics, especially mineral makeup. Though it is considered safe, many people have allergic reactions to Bismuth in makeup (I for one) and I wouldn’t use it. Titanium oxide can be purchased mixed with mica for a pearlecent effect and that is what I would substitute it with.

Bone Pulverized bones from sheep and ox where used to colour hair powder white. I suppose the powder gets too coarse to be used in makeup. However, the white pigment in bones is really Calcium carbonate which is easy to find.

Brazilwood Warm red pigment coming from wood of Caesalpina brasiliensis. Safe, but the tree is considered an endangered species.

Burnt amber Clay pigment. The colour is reddish brown.


Chalk Used to whiten hair powder. However, pulverized chalk may irritate skin and can be corrosive if you get it into the eyes, so substitute it with Calcium carbonate instead.

Calamus Aromaticus Another name for the flower Sweet flag. Used in perfumes and in herbal medicine. Considered safe, but may irritate skin.

Carmine Bright red pigment that comes from the scales of the cochineal, an insect. Considered safe and is used today as colourants both in makeup and food, but it is quite common to be allergic to it.

Carrot Bright orange root vegetable

Cinnamon True cinnamon comes from the inner bark from trees of the genus Cinnamomum. Popular spice and reddish brown in colour.

Coal Burned wood. Used to colour hair powder, but seems to have been considered an inferior pigment for that purpose.

Cloves A spice, aromatic dried flowers buds. Used as a spice in cooking and baking. Ground clove is very dark brown.


Dragon’s Blood A resin with a bright red colour. In the 18th century it was sometimes called Vermilion, the same mercury-based red pigment. Dragon’s blood, however, is considered safe and a suitable substitute.



Field Gromwell, Corn Gromwell, Bastard Alkanet Red pigment derived from a plant. Carl von Linné writes in 1755 that peasant girls in the northern parts of Sweden use the root for red makeup.


Gold leaf Extremely thin sheets of gold that is used for gilding. Though an metal, gold is used in alternative medicine and is considered anti-inflammatory. Edible gold leaf can be found in well-sorted food stores

Gum Benjamin See Benzoin resin


Honey Apart from it’s sweet favour, honey also have healing properties and works both as anantiseptic and as antibacterial. It also softens skin and can be used in salves and creams. Safe, but small children should not eat it.





Labdanum Rockrose resin. Very common in perfumes. Despite its origin the smell is described as animalistic, resembling ambergris or musk.

Lavender oil Scent made from Lavender flowers. The scent is considered calming and relaxing. A modern use is to help tension headaches, which may not be too big a leap to imagine that people in the 18th century may have suffered from. At least when the hairstyles got really big.

Lemon-peel Dried and ground peel from lemons.

Litharge Red lead Red pigment made of lead. Poisonous, so even if you could get it, don’t try it. Red pigments from Iron oxides can be used instead.

Lycopodium powder The spores from club moss plants. It is very flammable and is today mainly used in explosives. It has several other uses, though, like stabilizing ice cream, finger print powder or lubricating dust on latex gloves. In Sweden it has historically been used on baby bottoms instead of talcum powder.


Mace Mace comes from the Nutmeg tree. Nutmeg is the seed; mace is the seeds covering and is reddish brown.

Myrrh A resin that have been in use since ancient times as perfume and incense but also for its medical proprieties. It is antiseptic and has a long standing tradition in various mouth remedies, like sores and cleaning teeth and gums. Melts tolerable well into vegetable oils. Is considered safe, but shouldn’t be used the first 5 months of a pregnancy.



Oil of Rhodium Has nothing to do with the chemical element. Rhodium oil is also known as Rosewood and comes from the Brazilian Rosewood. Used in perfumes but is also healing and antiseptic. It also have a slightly deodorising effect. Considered safe, but is an endagered species.

Oil of Roses (i.e. Rose oil) An essential oil extracted from rose peals. It is very labour intensive and the oil is therefore very expensive. Used in perfumes and other cosmetics and is considered safe.

Orange peel The dried and ground peel of oranges.

Orris root Though smelling like violets, Orris root is in fact the root from the flower Iris. Florentine indicates Iris Florentina which is supposedly the best quality. Used as fixatives in perfumes and potpourri’s and also as flavour- it taste like raspberry. Safe in other words.



Red sandalwood, Red sanders Red pigment coming from the root of the tree of the same wood. Used in makeup today. Similar to Vermilion in colour, but fades quickly. Sandalwood is considered an endangered species. Substitute with Dragon’s Blood.

Rose oil see Oil of Roses

Rosewater Scented water that can be used as perfume, but also in food. Safe.

Rosewood oil See Oil of Rhodium


Saffron A very expensive spice that colours everything you uses it in bright yellow. However, saffron was also used for Safflower in the 18th century. Safflowers can yield both yellow and red pigment, Carthamin. It seems quite likely that saffron in recipes for red makeup really means Carthamin. It is used today as food colourant under the name of Natural Red 26.

Starch Carbohydrate a white powder without scent or taste that you find in such basic foodstuff as potatoes, corn and wheat. In the 18th century wheat starch was most common, though by the end of it, corn starch was used more and more. Today corn starch is the main ingredients in dry shampoos.

Storax The resin from a tree often called Oriental or Turkish sweetgum. Used as incense and as a fixative in perfumes. Safe.

Sweet flag See Calamus Aromaticus


Talc, Talcum Powder, French Chalk A mineral that becomes a very fine powder and is still in used in cosmetics. It doesn’t cover well, but clogs up the pores and the fine powder may irritate your throat. However, in the 18th century Magnesium oxide was also called Talc. It has supposedly better coverage and is indeed also used in modern cosmetics. It seems to be a better option when a recipe calls for talc in white makeup.

Tin white, Tin dioxide It is listed in Kallopistria, oder die Kunst der Toilette für die elegante Welt from 1808 as used for white makeup. Though not as poisonous as lead, tin doesn’t seem to be all that nice to get into your system. It is supposedly similar to Zinc oxide, so if I would definitely use that instead!



Vermilion, Cinnabar A red pigment made of mercury. Poisonous, so even if you could get it, don’t try it. Was known to be dangerous in the 18th century but was still used. Substitute with Dragon’s Blood.


White lead, Ceruse, Litharge White pigment made of lead. This is very poisonous and should not, under any circumstances, be tested! Despite being known to be dangerous it was very popular for white makeup as it provided a very smooth, opaque surface. Luckily there is a safe substitute nowadays in Titanium dioxide. This white pigment is used in both makeup and sun block and can be bought at any art store that sells pigment. When called Litharge it can also mean red lead pigment.


Zinc oxide, Flowers of zinc White pigment made of zinc that has been around since Classical times, but was rare until the 1780’s. Still, The Toilet’s of Flora from 1779 lists a recipe for a white paint that contains zinc, so it seems to have been used earlier. It is safe to use, zinc is used today in makeup and sun block and can be bought as loose pigment, but doesn’t cover up as well as lead did.

Yellow ochre or Gold ochre, hydrated iron oxide Non-toxic and commonly found as painter’s pigment.


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