From Victorian inventions to microneedles: the history of face masks

The sheet mask has long been an integral part of skin care. We tell the story of the invention of masks, which is rooted in the distant past.

Ayurvedic masks in India

About 5,000 years ago in ancient India, adherents of Ayurveda (from Skt. “Science of life”) made face and body masks called ubtan, which historians now consider one of the very first cosmetic products in the world. The composition of the ubtan masks varied with the seasons, but the base always included fresh herbs, such as aloe vera, turmeric and all kinds of flowers.

Carved as a young woman in a papyrus clump supporting a vessel, this cosmetic spoon was used in ancient Egypt around 1375 BC.Carved in the shape of a young woman in a papyrus clump supporting a vessel, this cosmetic spoon was used in ancient Egypt around 1375 BC.

As the inhabitants of India believed, such masks not only improved the appearance of the skin, but also contributed to maintaining health for life. Soon, women of this country began to use them before rituals and religious ceremonies such as Diwali (the main Indian and Hindu holiday) and Khaldi (pre-wedding ceremony). Today, the principles of Ayurvedic lifestyle have not changed much and women continue to use the same ingredients in their masks.

Egyptian cosmetics and Cleopatra’s beauty routine

Not only the inhabitants of India, but also the ancient Egyptians carefully looked after the skin. Obsessed with appearance, they made face masks out of clay, and soon milk and honey were used to make them (sometimes the more dubious ingredient is crocodile dung). It is impossible not to remember Cleopatra, who was the pioneer of such beauty rules. Known for her donkey milk exfoliating baths, the ruler applied a Dead Sea mud mask twice a week to cleanse her skin and maintain a radiant complexion. She also added egg whites as an anti-aging ingredient to her handmade masks.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra (1963)

It is known that Cleopatra also loved to use the rose. She especially liked to spray her ships with scented water to announce her arrival.

The ancient Egyptians, who lived under the harsh scorching sun that required careful skin care, valued grooming so highly that they combined it with religion: they forbade anyone to cast magic or religious incantations unless the person was completely clean and oiled. Wealthy Egyptians even asked for their favorite serums to be placed in tombs (masthaves in the afterlife), while the Babylonians carved seashells and used them as containers for mixing and storing ointments for skin care and cosmetics.

This carved shell served as a container for cosmetics.
This carved shell served as a container for cosmetics.

Yang Guifei in China

Another trendsetter in ancient times was Yang Guifei of the Tang Dynasty, who was considered one of the four main beauties of China. For a brightening effect, Guifei mixed a powder made from crushed natural materials such as pearls, jadeite, tea leaves, ginger root and lotus flower with water. Dozens of other women at Emperor Xuanzong’s court followed suit.

Masks in Ancient Rome

Meanwhile, in ancient Rome, girls took care of themselves, sometimes mixing strange ingredients. To butter and honey, they added basil juice, vinegar, goose fat and even snail ash, the human placenta, and the waste products of birds and cows, which were believed to have healing properties for the skin.

Personal care in the Middle Ages

Skin care rules gradually began to spread westward and into Europe. It is worth looking at any medieval painting, and it becomes obvious that all women tried to preserve their pearl-porcelain complexion. In order to lighten the skin, women sometimes resorted to dangerous methods. They applied blood-sucking leeches to their faces or made masks from calf and hare blood, as it was believed that this would reduce the appearance of age spots and freckles.

"Portrait of a lady" works of the Dutch artist Rogier van der Weyden
“Portrait of a Lady” by the Dutch artist Rogier van der Weyden

Renaissance cosmetics

During the Renaissance, this obsession has not gone anywhere. The fashion for porcelain skin also prevailed during the reign of Elizabeth I, who, as you know, applied layers of white herself to hide smallpox marks on her face. The women also used white lead and mercury (hazard class 1 toxins) mixed with honey and olive oil. On the other hand, some recipes are still quite usable today. For example, a brightening mask made from lemon juice and egg whites, which Cleopatra loved so much.

Unsurprisingly, satirists (from the Roman writer Juvenal to Jonathan Swift) have ridiculed the complex female skincare rituals for centuries as grueling work of five hours a day.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the cosmetic industry appeared in the modern sense of the word, and face masks became commonplace for Europeans. Along with a variety of perfumes and makeup, Queen Marie Antoinette of France pioneered skincare by mixing egg whites with various solvents, including cognac. She was of the opinion that healthy skin should always remain under luxurious makeup.

Marie antoinette

Cosmetic achievements of the 19th century

By the 19th century, the market had completely changed, this was due to the emergence of department stores. Cosmetic products and accessories from Europe were delivered to America. One such invention of the milliner and dressmaker Madame Helen Rowley literally changed the entire beauty industry. In a house in Ohio, Rowley created her famous “toilet mask,” also known as the “face glove,” patented in 1875. The soft and flexible device was fitted with special head straps and was worn at night three times a week. She allegedly cleansed the pores, whitened and restored the skin. In fact, the mask was made of simple rubber, which did nothing but increase sweating in women. They were soon discontinued due to the high risk of suffocation.

Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) of Austria is one example of a 19th century woman obsessed with caring for her beauty. To keep her youthfulness, she ditched makeup and focused on skin care. She applied raw veal or chopped strawberries to her face. She also used creams based on rose water, almond oil and wax.

Self-care according to the rules of the 20th century

Nevertheless, in the 20th century, many analogues of the revolutionary Rowley mask appeared, and the search for safe and effective skin care cosmetics began soon. By the 1960s, terms like cleansing, toning, and moisturizing had become a part of everyday life. In the 1970s, cosmetics manufacturers began using natural ingredients to satisfy customers’ desire to use as many organic products as possible. In the 1980s, collagen began to be added to cosmetics and facial masks to improve skin elasticity.

The 20th century marked a real revolution in the world of cosmetics. Gradually, makeup became available not only to the upper strata of society and certain groups of citizens. He ceased to be associated with the public with actresses and prostitutes (many then did not see a big difference between these professions). Entrepreneurs, particularly Polish-American women Helena Rubinstein and Elisabeth Arden, have opened popular boutiques in New York that have proclaimed skin care a lifestyle. Beauty salons have sprung up all over the place offering a variety of facial treatments.

Modern means

When the Korean grooming system boomed in the 2010s, sheet masks became bestsellers. The serum-impregnated, thin, easy-to-apply products can be used not only at home, but also on the go: on the plane or in traffic. Experts believe that celebrities have also contributed by posting masked photos to social networks.

Bella Hadid
Bella Hadid

However, controversy began to arise about the effectiveness of disposable masks. Critics argue that they have the same benefits as serums, but they need to be applied regularly to be effective.

Now all cloth masks can be roughly divided into four different categories: exfoliating, washable, hydrogel, micro-carbon and leaf.

Elsa HoskElsa Hosk

There are masks to tackle just about any problem, from moisturizing to dealing with pimples on the buttocks. Many ingredients used in ancient traditions, such as turmeric and rose water, remain popular today. Face masks have become a great way to unwind after a long day or prepare your skin for an important event, and are loved by both celebrities and casual beauty lovers.

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