Oct 252018
Innovative Ingredients, or Old Remedies?: Popular Korean Skincare vs. Eighteenth-Century Cosmetics Recipes

This week I’m doing a collaborative post with The Recipes Project, a blog dedicated to historical recipes. If you’re curious about my academic research, then please check out my post on uses of snails, honey, and asses’ milk in eighteenth-century domestic medicine. That post is part of Folklore Thursday, and sort of ties in with Halloween… sort of! My post here discusses the question: are our modern cosmetics innovative ingredients, or old remedies?

For my previous collaboration see Reconstructing 18th Century Recipes and my corresponding post on The Recipes Project about reconstructing recipes.

What are the “innovative” ingredients?

Snails, honey, and donkey’s milk are popular in the beauty industry, particularly in South Korean skincare. Earlier this year, I decided to test a few products from Amazon. They sparked this idea to write joint posts on the historical and contemporary uses of animal-derived ingredients that are associated with amazing results and anti-aging properties.

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links

The global beauty industry (estimated worth 532 billion USD last year) is built on creating “miracle” treatments and “discovering” the newest effective ingredients. Ironically, many products on the market today contain natural ingredients that were proven to be effective a long time ago! Brands may be launching new moisturisers and anti-aging serums monthly, but women (and men) have long been DIYing their own cosmetics and toiletries, including in the eighteenth century. Below are a couple of examples of eighteenth-century cosmetics recipes, and then I’ll review those Amazon products for you. 🙂

The Eighteenth-Century Remedies

Eighteenth-century recipes often contained ingredients that we would not use today, at least not in the same way (think lead, opiates, minerals). The manuscript recipes pictured below contain ingredients that are potentially dangerous if used incorrectly, so don’t try them at home.

Here is a cold cream recipe in a manuscript collection which belonged to Anne Hamond of Norwich. This face cream could compete with Pond’s or Olay, as it has ingredients we use in today’s skincare: sweet almond oil and rose water. It also includes spermaceti (a waxy oil found in the organ of a whale’s head).

Cold Cream
‘Anne Hamond’s recipe book household and medicinal remedies and cosmetics’ (n.d.), Hamond of Westacre Collection. Norfolk Record Office, HMN 5/1, 737X8, f. 42.

Face masks, whether they’re sheet masks, clay, overnight, bubbling, or detoxifying charcoal are one of the most popular skincare products on the market. Wealthy women in the eighteenth century were also preoccupied with making their complexions as flawless and radiant as possible!

Here is a recipe for a face cream that was used to beautify one’s complexion. It instructs to take tartar [I assume cream of tartar, or Potassium bitartrate] and burn it in a hot charcoal fire before adding it to smiths water [my guess is either blacksmith’s water, or a spa water].

Tartar Face Cream
An anonymous collection dated c. 1725. Wellcome Library, MS.3582, f. 69r.

Back in winter, I tested out a snail gel sheet mask. You can read my thoughts here, but essentially the principle behind snail mucin is that it’s meant to lock in moisture and promote collagen production.

Snail Mask

In July, I bought the Natural Snail Repair Eye Cream Collagen Anti-Dark Circle Wrinkle Essence Firming (?!). This eye gel claimed to brighten dark circles and reduce puffiness, for younger looking eyes (I need this!). The smell is pleasant and the gel feels cool. I wouldn’t say it is a miracle cure, but my under eye area does feel moisturised in the morning.

A Guardian article featuring an interview with a cosmetic scientist suggests that the reason our skin feels firmer is that snail secretion has water-soluble biopolymers which shrink on drying. Another post by a molecular biologist blogger may also be of interest.

Snail Extract

It may not be treating my respiratory ailments, but the humble snail can stay on my cosmetics shelf for the time being.


I love honey and I use it for all sorts of things from honey and ginger tea, sweetener, and to eat! I’ve also tried a few natural beauty recipes over the years containing honey as it has antibacterial and softening qualities. For the purposes of this post, I bought a Chinese product called “Milk Honey Rejuvenation Hand Wax“.

Honey Mask

This product’s marketing is somewhat lost in translation, with the efficacy stated as: “milk, honey essence, replenish nutrition, softening keratin, to reduce skin surface, make the skin soft and shiny, form protective membrane on skin hand, slowing the loss of water”. Translation — it’s a moisturiser that will make you skin soft.

I wouldn’t buy this again. Lucy and I had a hell of a time peeling it off, and, although it did make my feet soft, I’d rather not use a product with the added chemicals. I’ll stick to plain honey.

The Hair Rinse

I did test out a natural honey-based treatment, and an eighteenth-century one at that! Grizel Stanhope’s collection has a recipe “To clean the Hair & make it shine”, which calls for white wine, rosemary, and honey.

Rosemary is astringent and has antioxidant components, which are anti-fungal and help prevent dandruff and treat itchy scalp. It encourages hair growth by promoting circulation (because of the ursolic acid), and helps give it extra shine. Combined with the nourishing properties of honey, it’s no wonder that we are still using derivatives of this recipe today!

Stanhope Hair Rinse
Grizel, Lady Stanhope (née Hamilton), ‘Recipe Book (culinary and medicinal)’ (1746), Stanhope of Chevening Manuscripts. Kent History Centre, U1590/C43/2, f. 42v.

I didn’t want to use a quart of precious wine so I quartered the recipe. 284ml of white wine were added to a saucepan as well as a tsp. of dried rosemary (fresh would be better). The mixture was simmered until it was reduced by half and then left to cool before a tsp. of honey was added.Hair Rinse

My hair feels soft and clean, and I guess it looks shiny. This would be a great alternative to apple cider vinegar rinse if you’ve got an itchy scalp or dandruff!

Asses’ (Donkey’s) Milk:

Donkey’s milk contains retinol, which is a valued ingredient in anti-aging cosmetics. It’s high concentration of fatty acids also helps lessen the appearance of wrinkles. Donkey’s milk is hydrating, vitamin rich, anti-bacterial, and is said to be better for people with lactose allergies (sign me up!). Today, it’s used in Asian, Greek, and Indian traditional medicine for treating respiratory problems, digestive issues, and arthritis (the same as in the eighteenth century).

Here are two articles on donkey’s milk in the beauty industry from Allure and Stephenson Personal Care.

Donkey Milk Soap

Asses’ milk was historically used for cosmetic purposes. The legend that Cleopatra bathed daily in asses’ milk makes the single bar of donkey’s milk soap I tried seem spectacularly frugal in comparison!

I would 100% use donkey’s milk products again. I bought this bar of soap to test for two reasons: one, it was less expensive than the skincare products; two, it contains “opium”. As an eighteenth-century historian, this made me laugh because opium was a common medical ingredient. Actually, it’s a French soap and opium just means it has poppy seeds in it for exfoliation. The soap was gorgeous. It smelled lovely, and was incredibly moisturising — I even included it in my autumn favourites!

Again, donkey’s milk is a big seller in the Korean beauty industry, namely for its “whitening properties”.

The “whitening” trend:

A main objective in Korean beauty seems to be “whitening”. This is a controversial description as it more accurately translates to “brightening” – meaning these products are meant to illuminate your complexion, making it flawless and less fatigued.

Using cosmetics to create “whiter” and blemish-free skin was also a preoccupation of women in the eighteenth century.  The hand wash recipe below, for instance, would have exfoliated and lightened the complexion with its ground almonds and barley.

Hand Wash
Anne Hamond’s recipe for a wash for the hands from the Duchess of Rutland. Norfolk Record Office, HMN 5/1, 737X8, f. 11.

A final product that I wasn’t willing to test is placenta. The Korean beauty industry has a niche market for placenta. Claiming to whiten skin, products containing pig or sheep placenta are apparently beneficial because they contain hyaluronic acid (moisturiser) and hydrolysate, a protein that prevents wrinkles. For ethical and health reasons, I won’t purchase them and can’t attest to their efficacy.

In case you’re wondering, afterbirth was also used in early modern recipes. I have come across references to afterbirth in magical cures, and in Lady Cantile’s recipe book from 1688, a remedy for treating incontinence contained the afterbirth of a male child for treating a woman, or female child for treating a man, powdered and added to a broth.[1]

Final Thoughts

I hope you’ve found this post on innovative ingredients or old remedies interesting. Perhaps it’s also been useful if you’re looking to test some products that are popular in Korean skincare. Please do go over to The Recipes Project to show your support and, if you’re visiting from that platform, thanks for reading.

Now, go treat yo’ self to some snail gel!

[1] Lady Cantile’s collection from 1688. British Library, Add. MS 579944, f. 176.

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