Fragrance and Beauty through the Ages

Written by Leanna Serras

Hygiene and beauty practices have been an important aspect of life since ancient times. Though hygiene habits may have been influenced by societal beliefs, medical knowledge, and current fashion, their documented processes often provide insight into cultures and the worldly circumstances that surrounded them. For many, cosmetics were considered a luxury or even an unnecessary exercise in vanity. Some civilizations, however, like the ancient Egyptians, regarded them as an integral part of life. Despite significant amounts of time and distance separating cultures in history, certain consistencies, like the desire for red lips and cheeks, appear between them that speak to a near consensus on a beauty standard.


Ancient Civilization

Perfumes and scented ointments have been a mainstay since the earliest civilizations. The Egyptians had a god of perfume, Nefertum, and large a collection of perfume recipes and oil-based salves that they created to appease him and support health. Their dedication to the art and craft of perfume-making positioned them as a leader in the world fragrance market. Later, their advanced techniques in perfumery would influence the Greek and Hindu use of fragrance in both the spiritual and hygienic arenas.

Medieval Europe

Despite the Greeks' and Romans' appreciation for baths, Medieval Europe - especially areas in the Northern region - saw a decline in hygienic concerns. A rudimentary understanding of biology and an unrelenting fear of infectious diseases, like the plague, kept medieval individuals distrustful of water, as they considered it to be a carrier of illness. Instead of water, linen was used to remove dirt, sweat and oils from the body. Baths could be taken as little as two times a year and, until the prescribed rituals of bathing could be fully inhabited, those living in medieval times often practiced very basic hygiene measures.

17th Century

Individuals in the 17th century took cues from previous centuries and relied on clothes to help clean and conceal accumulated grime on the body. The donning of fresh clothes often marked the station of an individual, as it was assumed that people who could afford extra linens for personal hygiene use belonged to higher social classes. It was around this time that perfumes were relied upon to mask bodily odors. People also began wearing perfume in order to overpower the scents of especially odorous individuals near them

18th Century

This period saw advances in the field of physiology. Doctors began to understand the importance of cleaning dirt and grime from the body, so that blocked pores could open and clear pathways for perspiration and the release of toxins. As a result, both baths and soap became en vogue. While the relationship between hygiene and health was not fully understood, scented elixirs, potions and oils were used to try and combat diseases.

19th Century

Hygiene was considered to be an important part of personal care by this time. Industrialization in England and a rise in the population made hygiene an indicator of social standing, wealth and virtue. Medical treatises espoused the role of it in the staving off of disease and illness. For this reason, American colonists considered bathing as more of a curative measure than a hygienic practice. Perfume, cologne,and other mixes of essential oils and popular fragrances, was often used to treat infections during this period.

20th Century

The advent of modern, running water systems, including pipes and electricity, made it easier for individuals to cleanse themselves in the 20th century. After germ theory was proven, and led to a new, medical correlation between hygiene and health, a new emphasis on sanitation was born. Some public health officials note that an almost irrational fear of germs influenced society to excessively bathe and use products, like hand sanitizers that could potentially be toxic and detrimental to overall health. The beauty industry often marketed fragrance products not only to mask body odors, but to completely eliminate them.


Ancient Egypt

As with fragrances, the ancient Egyptians are responsible for many civilizations' understanding and use of cosmetics. Makeup was used by both men and women for beautification, medical reasons, practical purposes, such as repelling insects or protecting the skin, and even rituals. Cosmetics were so important to the ancient Egyptians that they were often placed in tombs for people to use in the afterlife. Paints for the eye, red rouges for the lips and cheeks, and henna for the nails were often applied. Oils for the body acted as carriers for attractive scents.

Medieval Europe

Make-up was not very popular during medieval times, but it was available for those who chose to wear it. Cosmetics were often considered a precursor of sin, so makeup that was applied during this period was used for modest enhancement. Herbs, flowers, plants, and other organic materials were processed to create white powders for faces and basic lip balms. A base of beeswax for cosmetics often contributed an earthy fragrance to the makeup. While cosmetics for the eye were not in fashion, eyebrow plucking reduced the fullness of brows.

18th Century Europe

Cosmetics were generally a luxury of the upper classes during the 18th century. Those who could afford cosmetics used them to differentiate themselves from the lower classes. Extremely pale skin was part of the beauty ideal, and individuals often applied white powders to their faces and bodies to emphasize pallor and show society that they were wealthy enough to avoid the tanned flesh of workers in fields. These powders, however, often contained toxic amounts of lead and mercury. The exceptions to the goal of achieving pale skin were the cheeks and lips, which often boasted bursts of vibrant, red rouge. Plant-based perfumes were liberally applied to the body.