People have varied opinions on the importance of skin care in their lives. Over the top routines have even been criticized on cultural grounds. Is it a necessity of living a civilized life, a fusion of science and beauty, another branch of never-ending conspicuous consumption, or just a straight con? It’s a complicated industry. Today, we look at the role of skin care throughout history.
What did our ancestors do? When skin care comes under fire, this question comes up, usually as a way to discredit the need for excessive skin care. The reasoning goes, why do we suddenly need sunscreen when its invention is less than 100 years old? What about cleansers and moisturizers? Aren’t they unnatural?
Soap has a long history, going back thousands of years. Animal fats were used in conjunction with lye to produce a basic soap, depending on the location and time in history.1 Soaps weren’t a cheap commodity throughout most of history, and it’s safe to say that the standards of hygiene were also very different even among the most privileged.2 People washed and even dried themselves as part of basic hygiene. Before the discovery of Germ Theory, however, the connection with general health may have been thin.
Chemistry made critical advancements in the 20th Century to meet the needs of changing hygiene demands. Soap became specialized – separating laundry soap from the soap for bathing and general packaging. Detergents and liquid soaps became available later, and today we have a cornucopia of cleansing options.
A common objection that sunscreen skeptics make is that sunscreens are a relatively new invention in human history. If ancient hunter-gatherers never needed sunscreen, why do I?
Mass-produced and packaged sunscreen may be modern, but sun protection is ancient. As a practical matter, sun protection (think of heatstroke more than sunburns) was likely a thing since we dwelled in caves. Veils, brim hats, and umbrellas were used by the Ancient Greeks and in older Mesopotamian Empires.3 Oils and plant juices were sometimes used as a makeshift sunscreen.
In more recent history, culture plays a driving role in how tanning and sun exposure is perceived. Until the turn of the 20th Century, porcelain skin was valued as a sign of wealth and privilege – separate from the working class who mostly labored outdoors. Cultural norms vary, and in Asia, sun protection is taken more seriously today. In the West, this turned on its head, as sunbathing became proof of privilege – having free time to do so.
The first sunscreen products started appearing in the 1960s. It’s estimated that it provided something like SPF 2-4. At the same time, this was at the height of tanning culture, and many believed and promoted sun tanning as a healthy pastime. The rise in melanoma and other skin cancers correspond with this generation of sun-worshipping culture. UVA protection didn’t come in until the 1990s. We don’t talk about covering up with clothes very often, but it is still one of the most practical and effective ways of protecting our skin. Indeed, modern sunscreens were not a thing, but bikini culture was also not a thing either.
Moisturizers are another skin care product that we take for granted. They were less common in the past, but we also didn’t bathe all that much either. Hygiene is, of course, a crucial part of health and general wellbeing, but it does come with some tradeoffs: Soaps, shampoos, other cleansers, and even water (especially hot water!) removes our skin oil and dries out the skin. Many of us enjoy various forms of air conditioning, which can often reduce humidity and dry out our skin. Living in the 21st Century, we need moisturizers more than ever before.
Prehistoric humans likely used some form of moisturizers, but hard evidence would naturally be difficult, if not impossible, to come by. Unlike ornaments or utensils that leave behind evidence, plant or animal-based salves do not leave fossils behind for archaeologists to gather.
The bottom line is that skin care products and most other personal care products are, in fact, useful and enhance our health and wellbeing. Don’t fall for the naturalistic fallacy. Soap may not be “natural,” but it’s still good. For some products like moisturizers, we may have a greater need for them due to our environment. More is not always better, but for the most part, skin care products not only make us feel and smell better but enhances our health as well.