Vintage Natural Beauty- Skincare

It’s the Queen’s 90th birthday this year, so to celebrate Becky and I have been looking at some natural beauty products that were used in the early part of the 20th century- some of which were known about in earlier centuries still. For the first part of this series, we have been gathering some hints from history about natural skincare.

Soap is one of the oldest beauty products. Castile soap, made from olive oil and plant ash, has been used for centuries. A 1870s beauty manual wrote that “for bathing purposes a piece of good white Castile . . . is as desirable as any”. Castile soap is still just as good today at helping people to scrub up well, but make sure that any soap that you buy is pure and contains no additives. Victorian dancer Lola Montez advised using water for bathing that was neither too hot or too cold: “The frequent use of the tepid bath is the best cosmetic I can recommend”. Many beauty manuals advised their readers to rub their face with a soft cloth: one manual written in 1867 wrote that “gentle and frequent rubbing with a dry napkin, is one of the best cosmetics ever employed”.  

After cleansing their skin, our ancestors loved a toner as much as we do. Two astringents that were very popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries were rosewater and orange flower water. As well as being beautifully scented, these lovely waters make soothing and effective toners. The latter was a particular favourite of Marie Antoinette, who reputedly loved its delicate floral scent. You should be able to find rosewater at most large supermarkets, but you might have to look in a specialist food shop or online for orange flower water. When buying these waters, check that the brand you are buying doesn’t use artificial additives or colourings. This is beauty that really is good enough to eat, as these waters are often used as flavourings in food.

Another popular astringent in the 19th and early 20th centuries was benzoin gum. The writer of Health and Beauty Hints (1910) wrote that “one of the most valuable [astringents] is made from one ounce of tincture of benzoin”. Lola Montez again: “The most remarkable wash for the face which I have ever known, and which is said to have been known to the beauties of the Court of Charles II, is made of a simple tincture of benzoin precipitated in water . . . This delightful wash seems to have the effect of calling the purple stream of the blood to the external fibres of the face, and gives the cheeks a beautiful rosy colour. If left on the face to dry, it will render the skin clear and brilliant.” These days, rather than dissolving the gum in alcohol, it is much easier to buy benzoin in essential oil form and dilute in spring water. Make sure that the benzoin oil you purchase is a good quality, therapeutic grade oil.  

Olive oil and sweet almond oil were popular moisturisers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Another legendary Victorian stage beauty, Madame Vestris, was reputed to stay wrinkle-free using a paste containing “oil of sweet almonds”, egg white and rose water.  

Talc was popular as a skin treatment in the early 20th Century, but is now thought by many to be a cancer risk. As an alternative, you could try my take on another historical recipe:  “History says that when Anne Boleyn came to France then a young girl, lady of honour to Mary, Queen of Louis XII, she was of a ‘dark and oily’ complexion. Someone recommended a daily bath, and after a powder  . . . When a year or two afterwards she returned to England, there was not a lady at the Court of Henry VIII, who compared with her in beauty of complexion”. The “powder” that this story refers to was made from orris root and starch, but orris root powder is known to cause allergic reactions. I’d therefore recommend a mixture of arrowroot powder and cornstarch as an alternative- you should be able to get both at your local supermarket. By the way, this recipe also makes an excellent natural loose powder, and you can even add some cocoa powder to add pigment. As with all powder formulations designed for beauty use, use only on occasion to avoid breathing in large quantities of powder.

We’ll try some of these and let you know how we get on- watch this space! We’d also love to hear from you if you try any of these products.

Love Janet and Becky x 

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