From antioxidant-laden botanicals to anti-aging serums, from mud masks to motorized cleansing systems, skin care has come a long way from the homemade butter soaps of yore. Thanks to technology and science, we can engineer formulas to a T(-zone). But, after centuries of medical advancements and beauty fads, we're left wondering if our ancestors deserve more credit than we've given them. After all, many cosmetic ingredients and techniques used a thousand years ago are still just as effective today.
Not ones to let our thirst for beauty knowledge be left unquenched, we tapped two experts to share their insights on traditional skin care regimens and how — and why — they would work (or not) for the modern-day lady or lad.
With the help of Annet King, director of global education at The International Dermal Institute and Dermalogica, and Marjorie T. Poole, registered nurse and makeup artist for Global Goddess Beauty, a cosmetic line that specializes in botanical- and fruit-extract-infused products, we dismiss or confirm the benefits of the world's most useful or most useless beauty ingredients.
Whether it's white rice or bird poo, consider this the Rosetta Stone of skin care knowledge.
Designed by Zhang Qingyun
What: Shea butter
The history: Shea butter is made from the nut of the shea, or karite, tree, which is indigenous to many African areas. In western countries like Ghana, it's used as a sunblock to prevent skin damage from ultraviolet rays.
The lowdown: An ingredient du jour for high-quality lip products, shea butter is an excellent emollient. "It’s nourishing, it’s healing to the skin, it prevents chapping, and it has a long-lasting effect," says King. "Versus a lip balm that’s petroleum-based, it tends to stay on the skin longer and is more of a barrier without affecting the skin function negatively, which petroleum-based products can do," explains King.
Although shea butter helps soften wrinkles and moisturizes skin, it's not good for all types. "For those who are prone to acne, their pores could get easily clogged, says Poole. "If you have this problem, I recommend the use of pure argan oil." Argan oil, although expensive, is lightweight and less likely to promote breakouts.
What: Yarrow root
The history: Dating back to ancient Greece, yarrow has been used for its wound-cleaning and blood-clotting properties. In the 1960s, researchers found salicylic acid in the plant, which can be used to treat fevers, reduce pain, and even alleviate toothaches when chewed on, according to Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs. However, it was the Aboriginal women of Australia who first used the plant for cosmetic purposes: to moisturize and hydrate stretch marks.
The lowdown: “It’s quite a well-known ingredient used in cosmetic products," says King. However, she warns against possible allergic reactions that can occur when using any plant-based extracts. "There’s a negative impact to thinking that nature is always better," she continues. "These botanical extracts are best delievered in a sophisticated formula, where an expert has taken the active portion of that botanical extract and put it into a delivery system that we know will maximize the efficiency of that ingredient." Translation: Crushing it up and rubbing it on your skin might not achieve the results you were hoping for.
The history: For centuries, people have said that Dead Sea mud holds healing properties. In fact, the ritual of trekking to these mud baths to relax and restore is where the idea of the service spa first originated.
The lowdown: The mud local to the Dead Sea contains a high percentage of salt, and thus, a higher level of nourishing minerals. Can't find Dead Sea mud? Other varieties can be beneficial as well. "The common ones in skin care are sulfur, which is excellent for drying out acne; bentonite, which is very deep cleansing and helps to draw toxins out of the skin; and kaolin, which helps to purify the skin," explains King.
What: Red grapes
The history: Many people know about the antioxidant properties of red grapes (vino, anyone?). To get that glow, some Chilean women would create a paste out of mashed-up grapes and flour, then apply it to their faces as a mask.
The lowdown: Rich in a proanthocyanidins and resveratrol, which research shows aids in cancer prevention and cardiovascular problems, grape seed contains complexes that help combat free-radical damage. However, unlike our Chilean sisters, King recommends using a compound scientifically formulated to absorb efficiently into your skin — not just rubbing it on. "It’s about using complexes now. Just like having a mixture of different things in our diet brings out the best responses, our skin works in exactly the same way," she says. "The more you can combine the best of nature and the best of science, the more you’re going to see an effect on the skin."
Poole, a die-hard proponent of natural ingredients, believes that the vitamins and beta-carotene in grapeseed oil and grapeseed butter are great for skin health. "When absorbed into the skin, it promotes suppleness, helps even out skin tone, strengthens tissues in the skin, and promotes flexibility," she says. (As with many butters and oils, however, it can clog your pores, she adds.)
What: Pearl powder and face mapping
The history: Back in the age of Chinese dynasties, early emperors and empresses would actually consume pearl powder to lighten dark spots. Milled from freshwater pearls, the powder was also used as an anti-inflammatory agent.
Also in traditional Chinese medicine, alongside acupuncture and Shiatsu, medicine men would use a technique called face mapping to read certain zones of the face and how they relate to different organs in the body. For instance, if your cheeks are red and show broken capillaries, it could mean lung stress, explains King.
The lowdown: Although centuries old, pearl powder is the “big newcomer in skin care," says King. "It’s good for protecting the skin, and the cosmetic benefit is that it increases the luminosity of the skin."
And, although face mapping is not an ingredient, the technique is still used frequently today. "The majority of consumers don’t understand their skin type, don’t understand their skin condition, and when they get face mapped, it’s like 100 light bulbs go off," says King of Dermalogica's face-mapping technique. "You realize you’ve been buying the wrong products, you realize you’ve been eating the wrong things, and you’ll make better choices."
What: Milk baths
The history: Leave it to Cleopatra, in all her regal beauty, to soak in a decadent mixture of milk, honey, and essential oils. These luxurious baths were said to have given the Egyptian ruler radiant and supple skin. Today, milk baths are used mainly in spa environments, with refined, pasteurized milk infused with extracts and oils.
The lowdown: Because it's rich in lactic acid (which has an exfoliating effect), sulfur, calcium, and amino acids, milk is an ingredient used in many cosmetic cleansers and bathing products today, says King. However, don't expect the same benefits from drinking the stuff. "The downside is that digesting diary is now proven to cause acneic breakouts on the skin," she explains. "There’s a plus and a minus to everything."
: Nightingale droppings and rice waterThe history
: A few years ago, Uguisu no Fun
— powdered nightingale excrement mixed with soap — was all the rage. Even the beautiful Beckhams were rumored to be fans
. However, King suggests opting for more tried-and-true exfoliants, like centuries-old rice water, to wash your face.The lowdown
: Nightingale droppings contain an enzyme that exfoliates the skin. It includes guanine and uric acid, which may
have a brightening effect on your skin. However, uric acid is found in most waste, argues King. "You could rub your
urine on the skin and could probably have the same effect, but does anybody really want to do that?"
Rice, on the hand, with all its Asian history and heritage, contains phytic acid, which also brightens the skin. Additionally, the grain also makes for an excellent exfoliant when not refined too much.
The history: What is now used to make candy was once believed to soothe stomach ulcers, skin diseases, and inflammation.
The lowdown: The licorice lovers (Napoleon was a big fan) of the past weren't wrong. "[Licorice extract] comes from licorice root, which has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties," says Poole. "As an ingredient in beauty products, it boosts micro-circulation, soothes skin, brightens skin tone, and helps disguise skin imperfections."