To acess the audio version, please click here:
Hello everyone! Welcome to our first episode of Cosmo Journey!
Today we are travelling back to the Medieval times and exploring the topic of cosmetics, skin care, body care, and general hygiene. Most people have this idea that the so called “dark ages” were a time when people were stinking all the time, had rotten teeth, and heads full of lice. However, this couldn’t be so far from the truth.
Since the beginning of times, people always tried to take care of their bodies, for social or personal reasons. Humans are social beings, and the medieval ages were no exception.
First, it is important to define the period of time and where in the world we will be talking about in this episode.
According to historians, the medieval period goes from the V to the XV centuries. So, it is important to consider that for 1000 years there were a lot of variation on the local costumes. Besides that, we will be focusing more on European costumes.
One of the main sources of the time is the Trotula, a book written by Trotula di Salerno, in the 12th century. This book covered topics that were essential to women’s everyday life of the time, from menstruation and childbirth to cosmetics and basic hygiene.(Green, 2001)
We think that the main myth is that medieval people didn’t shower. However, bathhouses were very common and used regularly, especially on the regions that were conquered by the Roman Empire. It is important to consider that the Christian Church had a critical impact on the social rules, so bath houses were controlled since they were the perfect place for what was seen as indecency. Bathhouses were also a social place and of leisure. (Wienische Hantwërcliute 1350, 2017) Soap is a very old cosmetic product. Ash and different kinds of animal and vegetable fats were always available to the people, and by the 7th century soap making was already a reality in the south of Europe. (The American Cleaning Institute (ACI), n.d.)
Like today, societies have always had beauty standards. Smooth and pale skin were the goal. It meant that you were rich enough to not have to work on agriculture, and wouldn’t be as tan as the common people. But also, unblemished skin meant you were not sick with diseases like chickenpox, that left scars all of the body. A smooth and soft skin meant that the woman was younger, which related to the fertility values. (Gilbert, n.d.)
For this, women used different ointments, creams, and depilatory creams. In this section, we are going to mention some formulations used at the time, but we highly recommend that you don’t try this at home! Even though it was something used in past, there are many modern and safer solutions available today to reach the same results.
Even though hair was covered most times during the medieval period, hair was considered very important for the beauty of the person. So, people made sure it was clean and adorned. Hair was covered for religious reasons (like it is referred in “Works of Tertullian”: “God commands that you be veiled. For what? To hide, I imagine, the heads of certain women.”).(Genoude, 1852) Nevertheless, the linens used absorbed the sebum produced, and combined with regular combing, it kept the hair cleaned for longer. We recommend the video of the youtuber SnappyDragon (a hairstylist and fashion historian), called “I'm a hairstylist. I tried Medieval hair care and went a month without washing my hair”, where she goes in depth on the topic. (SnappyDragon, 2022)
Like it was already referred, catholic religion had a major impact on the general behaviour of people.
This quote from “Works of Tertullian” proves it: “Yes, they insult the Lord, the extravagant women who whiten their skin or polish its unevenness with pale foreigners, who colour their cheeks with vermilion, who prolong the outline of their eyelids with an impure dust.”
However, people are still people and love to feel beautiful. So now, we are going to read to you some of the formulations proposed on the Trotula for different cosmetic purposes.
For depilatory creams
Most people consider that hair removal is a thing from the last century. However, hair removing techniques have been recorded for centuries. (Handerson, 1918)This is one of the medieval recipes used by people of the time.
For hair care
So, as you see, there were some crazy ways to make people more beautiful and adorned.
Hope you learned something new and now you have something fun to tell your intellectual crush!
Next episode is going to be on the disgusting secrets of ancient cosmetics and medicines.
See you next time!
Genoude, E.-A. De. (1852). Œuvres De Tertullien. https://www.tertullian.org/french/french.htm
Gilbert, R. (n.d.). Rosalie’s Medieval Woman - Skincare. Retrieved April 5, 2023, from
Green, M. H. (2001). The “Trotula”: A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine (review). In University of Pennsylvania.
Handerson, H. E. (1918). Gilbertus Anglicus - Medicine of the Thirteenth Century.
SnappyDragon. (2022). I’m a hairstylist. I tried Medieval hair care and went a month without washing my hair. YouTube.
The American Cleaning Institute (ACI). (n.d.). Soaps & Detergents History. Retrieved April 5, 2023, from https://www.cleaninginstitute.org/understanding-products/why-clean/soaps-detergents-history
Wienische Hantwërcliute 1350. (2017). Medieval cosmetics and beauty routine.
All the pictures in this article came from: Green, M. H. (2001). The “Trotula”: A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine (review). In University of Pennsylvania.