While natural health and beauty techniques have become widely used around the world, it’s sometimes easy to forget that they have their roots in long hold practices. Although not as sophisticated as the various therapeutic treatments that are now available, ancient alternative remedies contain many of the same ideas. Like current natural health and beauty techniques, ancient approaches rely on the same use of herbs and flowers, as well as extracts, and inform much of what we understand as the contemporary avoidance of artificial chemicals. Looking at some origins of natural and health beauty techniques, we can identify forerunners to modern treatments.
Early Egyptian and Chinese cultures made use of different extracts and naturally sourced materials in their health and beauty regimens. Notable examples included the Egyptian use of animal fats and natural dyes to design makeup, which gave rise to the common image of Egyptians with heavily lined eyes and wigs. The same attention to making the most of natural resources can be found in ancient Chinese cultures, which used local herbs and pigments as decoration, and for treating ailments. These approaches were based, in part, in the belief that the body was made up of humours that requires balancing. While we have progressed beyond this principle, the realisation that the natural resources around us can have a beneficial impact on our health still remains.
In terms of herbal medicine, the creation of potions, and the production of books and recipes were a common part of most ancient and early modern cultures. Asian and Middle Eastern cultures were able to use flowers and extracts like opium poppies as a way of treating pain, with these practices even extending to 3000 BC China’s use of ephredine for decongestant pain. Aztec and Native American cultures also made use of the healing properties of plants, and the medicinal qualities of coffee beans and rainforest vegetation.
In the Middle East and India, herbalists identified the importance of essential oils for skin care, as well as how plant extracts could be used for treating wounds after battle. Castor and linseed oils were particularly important to these practices. The development of contemporary health and beauty regimens can similarly be linked to India, and Ayurvedic medicine. Used in rituals, and extracting vegetables and oils for cleaning and scenting the body, these practices have been adapted, but are still important parts of Ayurveda as it operates today within India and around the world.
For more recent examples of natural, pre-industrialisation and synthetic medicines, we only need to look at the apothecaries and the doctors of the pre 19th centuries, who combined philosophies based on the humours and new understandings of anatomy to create tinctures, remedies, and beauty treatments. While some of these treatments, which include leeches, and using chalk for makeup, might not be viewed as particularly attractive today, they’re still important for thinking about how modern healthcare and beauty involves a blend of new thinking about natural resources, and their balancing with chemical treatments.