The answers will take you back in time and around the world. See some of the biggest milestones in skincare.
Polished obsidian stones, found in what is today Turkey, point to the earliest use of mirrors. We can now see what we look like without peering into a dark pond. Let the vanities begin!
3000 BC – 1070 BC
Skincare indicates your social status and also keeps you alive in hot, dry Egypt. Labourers get olive oil with their wages to moisturise. Royals have it better: aloe masks, milk baths, crushed beetles for rouge, pumice-stone scrubs and anti-bacterial kohl eyeliners.
Ayurveda sees skin as the mirror that reflects the health of the blood and the insides. So beauty (like food and lifestyle) is considered part of wellbeing. Medicated oils and herbs treat the skin, hair, teeth and specific concerns. Excess body hair is depilated away. There are face and body masks for each season and type of constitution. Men follow beauty regimes too.
The Chinese stain fingernails with gum, gelatin, beeswax, metals and egg. Greeks view a beautiful body as literally a good person. In Rome, beauty items are produced by the Cosmetae slaves, from which comes the term ‘Cosmetics’. The 11th century Middle Eastern text KitabAl Tasrif devotes one of 24 volumes just to cosmetics. 1558
Foreheads and fair skin are the mark of aristocracy. So women pluck away at their hairlines, use egg-white masks for smooth skin and get their pale pallor by letting leeches suck out their blood. Lead-based white-faced make-up is all the rage, killing many women. Even the Queen ends up with yellow skin in her old age. Flushed cheeks and red lips rule.
The Industrial Age
Machines rise. Factories flourish. Urban living and pollution is born, and so is affordable, scientific skincare. Early in the century, transparent glycerine soap becomes a new solution to grimy city skin. By 1859, petroleum jelly from unrefined oil, emerges as a cheap barrier against cuts, chaps and skin dryness. Talcum powder replaces lead. But the look itself is prissy: faces are bare and make-up is only for prostitutes and actors.
Glamour grows up
The movies are black-and-white, but for the first time, they sell a fixed idea of beauty: high cheekbones, full lips, groomed brows, lush lashes and always glowing skin. Wavy cascading hair adds to the overall appeal.
Actresses rely on beauty creams and little pots of rouge. They replace cold creams with soap. Packaged make-up, lotion, dye and tooth paste, make film-star glamour accessible.The safety razor is invented, as is the spray perfume.
Beauty goes global
Branded shampoo, lipstick, daily cleansing-toning-moisturising regimes, hair colour and perfume are part of common life. Colour magazines, films and TV show you exactly what good skin should look like, setting high standards for perfection. “Scientific” ingredients like ceramides and collagen get popular. Sun damage becomes a major concern worldwide.
“We walk less, eat processed food, overdo the coffee, chase deadlines, maybe smoke or drink, get less exercise than we need and work more than an eight-hour day,” points out Dr Priyam S Kembre, a dermatologist with the skin clinic Finesse and a consultant to La Roche-Posay. “There’s just no time for the body to rejuvenate and it shows on our skin, with dilated pores, stress, dullness, acne and wrinkles.”
Add this to the increased risk from sun damage and you’ll realise that the last two decades have changed skincare yet again. “In the West, people now consult dermatologists about skincare regimes even before their problems occur,” she says. “That’s helped them avoid problems from using the wrong or bad quality ingredients, but in India we tend to sensitise our skin using too many products, self-diagnose and use home remedies that may not be right for us.”
The smartest thing to learn from 8,000 years of skincare? “What worked for someone else or in some other era may not work for you, natural is not always better and our skin is only a reflection of our lifestyle. So that’s where you make changes first and start now.”