Ancient Skin and Haircare
By Hannah Ludlow, Student Research Assistant
Introducing the Integumentary System
The largest organ of the body is skin, and it is our first line of defense against the elements. Skin is part of the integumentary system, which also includes the hair, nails, and exocrine glands. Its general protection properties aside, the skin is also responsible for retaining fluid and regulating body temperature. Our skin is also a key tool in interacting with the world around us. We could not interpret sensation without it. Because our skin is foundational to how we present ourselves to others, much of its maintenance and care throughout history has been for cosmetic reasons, as well as medical ones.
We use our skin to interpret our health and ailments from the outside-in. Puffy, red skin can be signs of a localized infection. Shriveled, dry skin indicates dehydration. Notable issues related to skin health are sun burns, bug bites, rashes, and acne. Humans have always experienced skin diseases as well as these less significant issues and injuries. Naturally, we discovered ways to protect, heal and care for our largest organ.
Dermatology is the medical discipline dedicated to diagnosing and treating the disorders of the skin. Some of the earliest medical texts referencing dermatology can be dated back to around 2700-2500 BC from Greek, Roman, and Egyptian physicians. However, the earliest medical text containing a record of skin ailments and treatments for them is the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, which is about 3,500 years old. This text contains remedies that are still considered effective today and some that are now considered folk remedies. For example, the Ebers papyrus notes that the application of tar is a viable treatment for rashes, and some scholars also suspect it treats eczema and psoriasis. Today, lots of dandruff shampoos contain tar, among other ingredients.
Much later, the De morbis cutaneis, or “on the diseases of the skin” an Italian medical manual, started the evolution of dermatology as an independent medical discipline. However, the first school of dermatology did not exist until 1801 and was taught out of Paris’s Hopital Sanit-Louis.
Common Irritants and Diseases of the Skin
Most skin illnesses are typically treated topically. Historically, rashes and other forms of inflammation on the skin sometimes received a combination of topical treatment with a laxative. Tumors, cysts, and growths, however, had to be removed surgically. Eczema, dryness, and otherwise irritated skin was treated with salves. What is now known as lotion was developed by the Roman physician, Galen, around 200 BC. Galen mixed water, rose oil, and beeswax into what he called cold cream because it caused a cooling, tingly sensation and was an effective moisturizer.
Interestingly, samples of preserved skin archaeologically recovered from mummies and other human remains indicates that people in the past were widely afflicted with eczema, lice, and dandruff among other short-term, treatable skin conditions. Many of these ancient afflictions still affect millions of people. Modern dermatologists are currently using these ancient skin samples as well as records of these past diseases to understand their genetic development.
Skin cancers are often not taken as seriously as other cancers, thought they are just as deadly. In the United States, Melanoma is the fifth most diagnosed cancer, even though many of these cases could have been prevented with the application of sunscreen. Sunscreen as we know it was developed in 1938 by Franz Greiter, a swiss chemist and mountaineer who had been badly burned on a climb. At the time, this protective lotion was called Glacier Cream, but is now used for all outdoor activities. Long before Greiter developed his formula, the Egyptians had their own salve to protect their skin from the sun. This mixture was made using lupine, rice bran, and jasmine. Though people of Ancient Egypt did not know about skin cancer, they were aware of how the sun tanned the skin, which was not desirable. So, ancient Egyptian sunscreen was more of a cosmetic tool than a health one. Alternatively, one could cover their skin, like the ancient Greeks, who wore broad hats and veils to protect themselves from the sun’s harmful rays. The Greeks also used olive oil to condition the skin after sun exposure. In the late 1800s and early 1900s combinations of zinc, petroleum, and zeozon were combined to create another method that helped to prevent sun damage.
Hair is a critical part of the integumentary system because it helps protect the skin. Our eyelashes protect our eyes from debris and dust, and our eyebrows prevent sweat from dripping into our eyes. The nerves attached to hair at the roots also alert us to unwanted particles or insects that may be on us.
Castor oil is known to promote hair growth and was commonly used by Egyptian women. Today, castor oil is frequently cited as an at-home remedy for hair loss or to promote eyelash growth. The Egyptian texts that encouraged the use of castor oil to achieve desired hair growth also contained guidance for increased hair loss. This was not intended to be used on oneself, but rather was used as revenge against an enemy. To make the hair of a rival fall out, one would have to frequently rub the leg fat of a hippo, a turtle shell, or a cooked worm on their head.
Beauty is Only Skin Deep
It is true that though skin care is primarily about health, it is also about increasing beauty. No matter how much effort we put into looking attractive, beauty is fleeting (as so many poets have lamented over the centuries). Anti-wrinkle cream is just as old as ancient forms of sun protection. Today, Botox and face lifts are common procedures to achieve a youthful and beautiful appearance. Means of attaining a desirable look varies across cultures and time. While light skin was coveted throughout the ancient world, people now lay in the sun for hours just to get a perfect tan. Our health has a much greater longevity. How we treat our bodies comes back to us in the quality of our health. Skin is no different. Its health is quite apparent and even speaks to the health of our body internally. Managing our skin health has always been part of medical traditions, and it will continue to be a necessary and innovative part of our healthcare and health maintenance.