There are some bizarre beauty treatments available today, from flesh-eating fish for the perfect pedicure to cleansers that involve burning towels. However, as unusual as they may seem, they all pale in comparison to some of the unpleasant procedures that have been used throughout history and across the globe. While lead make up and corsets are well-known beauty treatments that could be better described as punishment, there are far more unusual beauty remedies in the history books.
Curious to find out more about these inventive and unusual beauty treatments? Read on to learn about the origins of history's strangest spa and beauty procedures, as explained by experts and bloggers.
My Beauty Matches explains that, during the Renaissance period, women used to remove their body hair by spreading arsenic on their body. A concoction of arsenic, quicklime and starch was left to stand for a couple of days to ensure full potency before applying to offending hairy areas. Quickly burning away surface hairs, the procedure’s side effects included rashes and burns. This method was known to be in use well into the 1870’s, despite reports of the treatment causing vomiting, convulsions, and comas and in extreme cases, death.
Jackie Spicer is a post-doctoral researcher at Aalto University in Helsinki, who is currently researching the material and visual culture of cosmetics in Renaissance Italy. She has written papers including “Made Up: The Science of Cosmetics”, and tells us:
“Women plucked back their hairlines to achieve a fashionably high forehead, tweezed their eyebrows, shaved, and made recipes that look a lot the waxes and chemical depilatories we use today. For instance, to remove the ‘unsightly’ hairs from your forehead, you might melt together dragon’s blood and strong vinegar - dragon’s blood is a red resin (also used to varnish violins), so it melts into a sticky sap. Or you could use quicklime, orpiment, and lye and burn the hair away. Though scary sounding, quicklime is actually chemically very similar to components in today’s Veet or Nair.”
“While modern products caution the user not to leave it on for too long, Renaissance hair removal recipes warn you to wash it off as soon as it starts to feel warm, ‘so that your skin doesn’t come off’. People did make strange additions to recipes in the hopes of preventing unwanted hair from going back – anything from bat blood, to urine or ant eggs. If you really wanted to guarantee hairless skin, you might try rubbing a lizard skin across the freshly depilated area!”
Geishas have long been thought of as the epitome of feminine ideal of beauty and perfection within the Japanese culture and are discernible through traditional kimonos, obis and make up. Though a Geisha was expected to be well read and highly skilled in conversation and music, the beauty of her face was not divorced from her material success. In a bid to fend off the ravaging effects of time, Geishas sought out obscure ingredients to keep their appearances youthful. According to My Beauty Matches blog, “In a beauty ritual of high regard, the Geishas sought bird faeces from nightingales for its prevalent levels of the chemical ‘guanine’. They believed that guanine helped to brighten facial complexions, creating the illusion of a more porcelain skin tone.
1500 BC – In the Far East, fashionable Japanese started painting their skin in white with rice powder.” While bird faeces may not seem particularly pleasant, but probably preferable to poverty and anonymity.
A handily portable sauna that could do everything from reducing acne to saving you from the common cold. Both discreet and convenient, the bath cabinet was elegantly decorated making it as much a fashionable item of furniture as a unique treatment. Pimples, oily skin, and bad complexions were all thought to be cured by this Victorian vapour bath cabinet. These cabinets were collapsible to make transportation between villages easier for rural doctors, whereas wealthier patrons would have a more permanent structure built in their houses.
Unfortunately this unpleasant treatment is not banished to the pages of history books, but instead is readily available today. While some products merely include chemicals derived from the secretions, other treatments involve live snails and strong stomachs. Stylist explains, “A number of different beauty products use snail serum, which also goes by the name of Helix Aspersa Müller Glycoconjugates. An organic, natural ingredient, it is gathered pure from live snails, mostly in laboratories in Chile (products highlight that snails are not harmed in the process). Its powerful biological properties are said to help relieve skin conditions such as acne, as well as reducing wrinkles and improving dull complexions.”
This dangerous-sounding massage is available in the Philippines, Indonesia, Israel, Thailand and Russia and is not for the faint of heart. Snakes collectively weighing up to 550 pounds are placed on an individual in an effort to relax the muscles and reduce tension. Snakes of varying sizes and weights are placed on a person to alter the pressure applied, with smaller snakes being used for facials. Some salons tape the snakes’ mouths to avoid any biting accidents, whereas others choose to simply keep the predators well fed, with up to 10 chickens prior to a session.
Many of us think of dyeing the hair unconventional colours to be a modern phenomenon, but, in fact, hair dyeing was a huge trend in Renaissance Europe – and people were just as experimental in spirit as we are now. Jackie explains:
“In Italy, it seems that men mainly used black hair dye, while women bleached their tresses blonde, spreading it out atop large, topless, brimmed hats to lighten in the sun. Germany saw a more colourful range of hair, and people would go as far as to enhance their natural styles with brightly coloured false braids of red, green or even purple.” We can only imagine that these hair dye hats would have been quite a sight to behold!
Once a popular cultural practice, for the most part, tooth blackening has lost popularity in recent generations. It was most prevalent in Japan until the Meiji Era. Prior to this, teeth blackening was practised by both men and women of aristocratic birth when they reached puberty and were recognised for coming of age, especially within the imperial household up until the Edo Era. After the Edo period it was mainly the aristocracy and married women who continued the tradition. In 1870, however, the Japanese government banned the process and leading it to die out almost entirely by the 1930s. It can still be found in parts of China, The Pacific Islands and South East Asia.
Whilst today, countless beauty products promise to endow us with thicker, longer and more voluminous eyelashes, this aspiration was not always heralded as a feminine ideal. Jackie explains that, “If you look closely at paintings from the time, you’ll see that there is very little emphasis on eyelashes.” In fact, she says, “treatises on female beauty actually described long, dark eyelashes as not being nice at all, claiming they make a person look frightened. One recipe recommends applying a sticky mixture of resin, wax, turpentine and oil to remove the eyelashes completely!”
In this recipe, women were directed to mix three ounces of Greek pitch resin, one ounce of wax, two ounces of Turpentine and five ounces of oil, before heating it and applying to the eyes. Recipes instructed “let it stay there until it cools, and then remove it with dexterity so that the hair will come off with it”. Far from how we would treat our lashes in the present day!
Whilst new information is being discovered about the beauty treatments of history each year, many of our assumptions about how the people of the past preened themselves are actually more myth than fact. As Jackie explains, many of the common stories we believe are actually far more complex than they initially seem:
“When I ask people what they think of when they think about Renaissance makeup, the first thing that many of people say is ‘weren’t they poisonous?’.
The answer to that, like so many things in history, is both yes and no. Yes, a number of historical cosmetics did use poisonous substances, the most famous of those being perhaps white lead, or ceruse. Even at the time, people knew it was poisonous – they had been aware of this since Classical Greece and Rome, however, many opted to use it anyway, perhaps a bit like going tanning nowadays. Unlike many substitutes (like ground orris root and pumice), white lead has a beautiful pearly sheen and can be made into an extremely subtle foundation. It wasn’t just used for aesthetic effects though – medical authorities of the time thought it had curative properties that could sooth burns.
“Another common preconception about historical makeup is that women glazed their faces with egg white – an uncomfortably slimy procedure, which makes it hard to move your face (we’ve tried it!). While many recipes do feature egg whites, most of those for the skin aren’t for everyday use, but are masks to be worn at night. For instance, one to make your skin lustrous is a combination of three types of flour, ground white lily bulbs and egg white, which you wear at night and wash off in the morning.” Jackie points out how easy it could be to take some of the common beauty practices we follow today out of content: “Imagine if people in 500 years thought we wore avocado masks during the day…”
To find out more about the spa and beauty fashions of the Renaissance, take a look at Jackie’s blog here.
We are all looking for the magical elixir that will hold back the hands of time, however as science and our understanding of cosmetics improves, we are now able to lather ourselves with ingredients that have evidence behind their youth giving claims. Nidhima Kohli from My Beauty Matches tells us:
“Coming from India I was quite surprised to hear that turmeric was a very common beauty product ingredient around the world. In Bali, I recently had a turmeric milk bath treatment for glowing skin.” While turmeric has been used in medicine for centuries, its anti-inflammatory properties have recently seen it being used in many beauty treatments.
As people strive to find the newest treatment, many conventional experiences are being altered to fit new research. Sascha from Beauty Geek finds some of the more unconventional spa treatments that have been developed in recent years rather beguiling. She says:
“I've heard of many strange and unusual products and treatments, varying from the odd to the downright disgusting, but for me, the concept of Cold Saunas is the sort of thing I find strangest as it's pretty much the exact opposite of what I perceive to be pampering; you sit in a cold room where temperatures reach minus 110 degrees Celsius, and you're kitted out in clothing that'll stop you getting frostbite. Three minutes is all you need to reap the benefits which are surprisingly impressive - improved circulation, joint mobility, reduction in fatigue are just a few of the possible benefits - and they're pretty long-lasting too. To me, this is the antithesis of relaxation and sounds absolutely awful!”
Unlike some of these more wacky enterprises, Champneys spas allow you to indulge in pioneering beauty experiences within safe and luxurious facilities. Though fresh out of snakes, we do offer many treatments of both a sensory and nourishing nature. The Dry Float allows you to access inner peace as your body feels weightless, drifting on a flotation bed in a warm and tranquil environment. The 25-minute treatment feels timeless as you float towards harmony of body and mind.
The Elemis Superfood facial approaches skin care with an organic and edible element. With a growing holistic attitude to nutrition and skin care, many are of the belief that what you put on your body is as important as what you put in it, and - due to the absorbent nature of the skin - that natural is the best policy. This amino active mask is imbued with minerals, trace elements and nourishing superfood ingredients to leave the skin silky smooth, completely moisturised and vitalised.
While Tiger-striped clams have been harvested for food in the Philippines for hundreds of years, it is only recently that they have made it into our spa culture. Previously, the shells were thrown away but now the smooth, polished shells have found a place on massage tables as the main ingredient in a Lava Shell Relax Massage. The shells are heated from within with the masseuse using all elements of the shell. The smooth faces are used to apply gentle pressure, the hard protrusion on the back can be used to ease tight knots, and the edges are useful for hard-to-reach places such as between the toes.
The Germaine De Capuccini Chocolate Wrapper is the epitome of indulgence as the three elements of this treatment are all geared to relax, nourish and send you on a journey of bliss. Including hot stones to relax any tense muscles, a chocolate exfoliation and a cocoa wrap, you will walk away with your chocolate addiction fulfilled and not a calorie wasted.
Image credits: onexargetian (DeviantArt)