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Medieval skincare routines were remarkably similar to modern versions, study finds

For centuries people have been trying to take care of their skin, making use of many different products, recipes and practices. A new study focusing on the works of the famous medieval doctor Trotula de Ruggiero reveals a skincare routine that is an “extraordinary combination of tradition and modernity.”

The study, led by a team from the University of Salerno, examines two works by Trotula de Ruggiero, also known as Trota of Salerno, who was part of the Medical School of Salerno around the beginning of the 12th century. Trotula’s works have long been considered to be key texts for understanding women’s medicine in the Middle Ages. But they also tell much about cosmetic remedies, including skin treatments, hair dyes, teeth whitening, eye and lip makeup, and body care procedures.

Perhaps a depiction of Trotula in an early 14th-century manuscript – London, Wellcome Library, MS 544

The researchers first note that Trotula’s work detailed the use of many traditional medicines. While many historians have been skeptical that these items could be effective, newer research in pharmacology has revealed their positive health effects. This is also true for medicines involved in skin and beauty care.

Over 40 different herbs, minerals, and animal derivatives are mentioned in Trotula’s work and also are used in modern skincare products. For example, fava beans have a medieval use as a facial cleanser and are now used in products to protect against abscesses, rashes and warts. Vinegar could be found in Trotula’s recipes for hair care and colouring, scabies, face, lip and gum care; today is used for scalp psoriasis, hair care and as a face exfoliator. Meanwhile, egg yolk found use in the medieval text for lightening and strengthening hair, while today is considered useful for nourishing damaged hair.


The similarities between Trotula’s skincare remedies and modern ones go beyond just the ingredients but also in their ways of application. The researchers write:

Trotula’s beauty tips for the face are surprisingly current and resemble the modern “skincare routine,” as they involve a pre-treatment, Consisting of thorough washing together with what we can define a modern peeling and a simple exfoliating mask before the application of specific functional treatments. The evolution of concepts, practices, ingredients, and methodologies in use in the aesthetic field from the Middle Ages to today, allow us to underline similarities and differences. Indeed, the specific recipes for facial treatment confirm the study and interest in aesthetic problems and “cosmetic” products by the Salerno Medical School. The original cosmetic science of Trotula shares with modern cosmetology, even in the case of the treatments proposed for the face, the goal of seeking to improve one’s appearance, making us perceive the existence of a canon of beauty of the time, but also to preserve skin health or cure various skin diseases, with a focus on prevention, a key and modern concept of Salerno practical medicine. This need is met with a wide application of herbs, minerals, and animal fats, used as raw materials to formulate cosmetics that we would currently define as “functional”.

For example, one facial cleaning that Trotula describes begins with a pre-treat wash that is based on tartar oil that provides a softening, lightening, and smoothing action. This tartar oil is not just a simple item, either, for it is made by soaking the tartar in vinegar using iron containers, a process which takes three to four days to complete. There is even more complexity to the treatment: “Trotula recommends applying tartar oil at night for its greasiness, for at least 7 consecutive nights, in relation to the type of skin; a particularly dry skin may require prolonged treatment for up to 15 days. During the day, in the period of night treatment with tartar oil, the skin should be washed with water and starch, which acts as a sprinkling and adsorbent/lightening powder. To prepare the starch, fresh barley grains are left to rot in three parts of water and ground in a mortar. The resulting slurry is crushed, and then, the water is left to evaporate in the sun in order to obtain a dry product that can be stored for subsequent applications.” Today, this combination of tartar and vinegar is still used to treat dry skin.

The study points out that knowledge of plants, animals and minerals for their cosmetic use is something that goes back to ancient times and follows a long tradition, which Trotula de Ruggiero was able to write down and detail.


The researchers conclude:

Trotula’s cosmetics and modern cosmetics seem to share a holistic vision since both don’t only look at the “product” and the “remedy” separated from the person to whom it is addressed. They have in common the attention to the balance and harmony of the individual, in the “man / woman-product-environment” interaction. Sustainable solutions and products, environmental protection, cost optimization with respect to performance are the drivers of cosmetology of the third millennium which, like Trotula’s cosmetology, is at the service of the person, aims to contribute to accompanying and slowing down the normal and physiological aging, wants to cooperate in well-being, using the help that comes from the plant world and the ecosystem in general.

The article, “The medieval skincare routine according to the formulations of Madgistra Trotula and the Medical School of Salerno and its reflection on cosmetology of the third millennium,” by Simona Pisanti, Teresa Mencherini, Tiziana Esposito, Valeria D’Amato, Tania Re, Maurizio Bifulco and Rita P. Aquino, appears in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. You can read the article through the National Library of Medicine.

Top Image: British Library Sloane MS 2401, fol. 47r