The Origin and History of Cosmetic Face Masks

Applying a face mask and using cosmetics to maintain beauty has been a beauty ritual practiced since ancient times. In fact, we know that the first cosmetic product ever made was a face mask. Face masks can nourish, cleanse, moisturize and tone the skin while also providing essential active ingredients for skin care. So where did they first begin, and how did ancient cultures influence their use in modern times?

Cosmetic Facemasks in Ancient Times

facemask use in ancient cosmetics

Ayurveda Haldi Masks in India

5000 years ago on the Indian subcontinent, men and women took care of their skin and hair during rituals connected with religion. Use of cosmetic products was not exclusive to religious events, however. In fact, using cosmetics was a pleasure and fulfilled a desire to not only appear more attractive but also to become healthier and a have longer life.

In the ancient Ayurveda tradition, face and body masks called ubtan were applied and adjusted according to the season. Ubtan masks are in fact the very first cosmetic product ever used in the world. Ubtan is a mix of various herbs, plants, roots and flowers chosen and mixed according to various skin types and desired outcomes. Ubtan became popular across India and was adopted as a ritual for religious festivals like Diwali and the Haldi ceremony during Indian weddings.

Even today, Indian women prepare different kinds of face masks at home. You can find many ready-made Ubtan powders on the market where you simply need to mix them with water or milk and apply them to your face. Ayurveda beauty care has not changed much since its introduction some five thousand years ago, proof of it’s effectiveness, safety and ease of use.

Egyptian Cosmetics and Cleopatra

Cosmetics in ancient Egypt

Cleopatra was a strong proponent of cosmetics

Since the dawn of their civilization on the banks of the Nile, Egyptians have been very particular about their physical appearance. Wealthy citizens often applied many different face masks to maintain their beauty. The first Egyptian face masks were made of clay. It is said that Cleopatra applied a dead sea mud face mask twice a week to cleanse her skin. Additionally, she also applied egg whites to tighten pores and give her skin a youthful look. Most famously, Cleopatra also swore by using rose. She was especially fond of drenching her ships in rose-scented perfume to herald her arrival.

Yang Guifei in China

Yang Guifei from the Tang dynasty in China, known as one of the Four Ancient Beauties of China, was a trendsetter in China with her use of beauty masks. Her go-to face mask was a mix of pearls, jadeite, lotus root and ginger ground into powder. This mixture was meant to brighten the skin, diminish pigmentation and wrinkles. It was so popular that many ladies on the Emperor’s court had started to use it to improve their own complexions.

Facemasks in Ancient Rome

Roman women regularly used face masks as part of their beauty routine. Oils, honey, vinegar, basil juice and goose fat were popular ingredients. They also used some rather exotic ingredients such as placentas or stools of animals like kingfishers and cows.

Western Use of Cosmetics

History of Western cosmetics

Beauty Care in the Middle Ages

Having a flawless white complexion was all the rage among women in the middle ages in Europe, leading to some creative and dangerous ways to make their skin look more pale. Some even used blood-sucking leeches to achieve an appearance of somebody on the verge of fainting. Others resorted to applying the blood of calves or hares since they believed that these kinds of treatments were supposed to rejuvenate the skin and remove freckles.

Renaissance Cosmetics

The pale look continued to be popular well into the times of Elizabeth I. By now, women had resorted to even more dangerous means to reach their desired skin color. They used hitherto unknown toxins such as white lead mixed with honey and olive oil to whiten their skin. But even this was not enough for some, and the practice of bloodletting continued. Fortunately, less invasive methods weren’t completely discarded. Face masks made of egg whites and lemon juice were also used by some to brighten and nourish the complexion and achieved much safer results.

Beauty Care in the 17th and 18th Centuries

Cosmetics as an industry really took off in the 17th century in Europe. Perfumes and heavy make-up products dominated the shelves of stores for men and women alike, but skin care had not been completely forgotten. Marie Antoinette, known for her lavish lifestyle, used to apply face masks based on egg whites to her face. She even went a step further than Cleopatra and these mixed egg whites with milk, lemon juice and, er, Cognac! It was not lost on everyone that underneath the layers and layers of make-up and powder applied to the face and hair, it was still important to have a strong foundation of healthy skin.

Cosmetic Advances in the 19th Century

Advertisement for Madame Rowley's Toilet Mask

Madame Rowley’s Toilet Mask

The 19th century saw many weird inventions and outrageous claims introduced in not just cosmetics, as the well-known “snake-oils” of the time attest to. For example, a special face mask invented by Madam Rowley made of Indian gum and custom adjusted to the features of the user. This overnight mask was supposed to remove visible freckles, fight discoloration and unclog pores. Unfortunately, it was very uncomfortable to wear and dangerous to go to sleep with due to the high chances of suffocating during sleep. Thankfully, Madam Rowley’s face masks were quickly forgotten.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria (also called Sisi) is one example of a 19th century woman obsessive about caring for her beauty. To maintain a youth look she abstained from using make-up and focused instead on skin care. She was a proponent of applying raw veal or smashed strawberries on her face. She also used creams based on rose water, almond oil and wax.

20th Century Beauty Care

the dawn of the 20th century heralded a real revolution in the world of cosmetics. Make-up slowly became widely acceptable and not simply something that was associated with actresses and prostitutes (many did not see much difference between those professions back then). Entrepreneurs such as Polish-American Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden opened popular boutiques in New York that started to focus on skin care as a lifestyle. Beauty salons began popping up everywhere offering facial treatments.

By the 1960s, skin care terms like cleansing, toning, and moisturizing became a part of everyday life. In the 1970s, cosmetics producers started to put natural ingredients to satisfy customers’ desires for more organic products. In the 1980s, collagen started to be added into cosmetics and face masks for better skin elasticity.

Modern Skincare and Beauty Trends

Modern trends in cosmetics and skin care

Today we are quite spoiled for choice when it comes to cosmetics and face masks. Face masks in particular are available in all different types: creams, gels, powders or sheets. There are masks that choose to follow a more scientific and “chemical” approach and others that are rooted in a natural and holistic approach to skin care.

It is hard to ignore the trend towards “bio” and natural ingredients in the cosmetics industry. Though not every brand has fully embraced a natural or bio ethos, many have products that do, and there is little doubt that this new trend will soon become the norm. More and more customers are starting to look at their face masks and cosmetics as a part of a meaningful ritual of skin care, as they were originally created.

What part of the history of face masks is the most interesting to you? Do you have a product? Let me know in comments below.