Category Archives: Cosmetic History

Sodium Benzoate

Sodium benzoate
Styrax – the shrub from which benzoic acid can be extracted

Sodium benzoate is a preservative that crops up on ingredient lists for skin care products.  It is safe, works well enough and doesn’t give rise to many skin reactions.

I don’t think it is many formulators favourite though, because there are other preservatives that work better. Not every preservative works in every formulation and against every organism, and sodium benzoate is one that really needs a low pH to work well and even then isn’t enormously effective against all the microbes you’d like it to be.  So it has its uses, but it isn’t especially versatile.

Crystals of Pure Benzoic Acid

To a chemist though, the name is quite interesting.  It is the salt of benzoic acid, and benzoic acid has played a key part in the development of organic chemistry.  It was first derived from an asian shrub.  Specifically, it was extracted the gum of the Styrax platanifolius.  This had been used for centuries but was purified still further by a sixteenth century French chemist.  He got it into a crystalline format from which he concluded, correctly, that it must therefore be a single compound.  I think that this was the first pure natural compound to be identified.  

Colin's Beauty Pages Forum

The chemist’s name was Nostradamus.  He’s still famous, not for his science but for some confusing predictions he made that continue to be talked about.

The chemistry of this compound was the focus of intense interest in the nineteenth century.  It was studied by many chemists. But the prize for working out its structure was taken by Friedrich Wöhler and Justus von Liebig.  These are two of the giants in the history of chemistry.  Their work was later built on to create the discipline of organic chemistry.  

There are quite a lot of cosmetic ingredients that are derivatives of benzoic acid, so you see ‘benz’ quite often on the backs of packs.  It is a neat little history lesson.

Everything You Need To Create Your Own Skincare Range at CCC

Egg and Yoghurt As A Hair Conditioner

I was talking to someone who grew up on the Indian subcontinent and he asked me about something his mother and sister do.  They make their own hair conditioner using yoghurt and egg.  It’s quite an interesting idea.  As a cosmetic chemist I can draw on raw materials from several hundred suppliers and use all sorts of equipment to develop and make highly effective hair treatments.  But what if I had to work with only the materials that were to hand in the average country kitchen? Continue reading



Taupe – Beige for ninjas

Reading beauty blogs is a very educational process.  I have for example just now come across a colour that hasn’t hit my radar before.  I got this from Charlotte at LipGlossiping who announced that her favourite colour for eyes is taupe.  Not having come across it before I googled it to discover it has quite an extensive wikipedia article devoted to it.   The name comes from the French for a mole.  (That’s the mammal, not the quantity of atoms for any chemists reading.  It is recognisable in the scientific name for the species – Talpa europaea. )  It is supposed to resemble the colour of that animal’s fur, though given how rarely we come across moles on a day to day basis that isn’t a lot of help. Continue reading

Alcohol In Skin Products

alcohol in skin products

If you put neat alcohol onto your skin and leave it there for any length of time it will dry your skin out.  This is something that is well known.  The exact details of how it works aren’t that well studied, but basically it disrupts your skin’s barrier function.  Consequently it is not a good idea to put a lot of alcohol into products intended for the skin.   But alcohol is a useful solvent and it often ends up on ingredient lists because there is a small amount in the formulation somewhere.  A small amount of alcohol is quite harmless. Continue reading

The Story of Cosmetics Part 1 -Neanderthals (Sponsored by Artful Teasing)

mineral pigments and pestle neanderthal cosmetics

Let’s start at the beginning since as the song says, it is a very good place to start. And when I say the beginning I really do mean the beginning.  Archeological finds  have indicated that we have been using makeup for a very long time.  In fact we may well have been using makeup for longer than we have been human.   Our story starts with the Neanderthals. Continue reading

Create a Vestal Virgin Hair Style


So who thinks to themselves,  “what did a Vestal Virgin Hair style looks like? “.  Perhaps it isn’t all that surprising. Lots of people like history and archeology, and lots of people hair dressing.  So there must be lots of people who like both.  Janet Stevens from Baltimore has gone into the whole issue in a lot of detail and posted her findings on Youtube. Continue reading

Trotula di Ruggiero – The First Beauty Blogger

The first person to write on the science of beauty was an eleventh century Italian woman called Trotula di Ruggiero (often called just Trotula of Salerno – a bit easier to spell and remember).  She worked in Salerno in one of the earliest medical schools.  She is most famous as the first person to write about women’s medical problems in De Passionibus Mulierum Curandarum.  But her De Ornatu Mulierum (about women’s cosmetics) is just as interesting.

Medieaval Salerno

Salerno at the time must have been a fascinating place to operate in.  The medical school consciously drew on the traditions of the Arabs, the Jews and the Greeks as well as the local knowledge of herbal beauty treatments.  It was also a place where women seem to have played a major role in developing knowledge.  The local produce and the sophisticated Mediterranean trade routes also provided a rich variety of raw materials.

The earliest known medical herb garden was situated in what is now the Garden of Minerva on the hill that dominates old Salerno.  This was the “Hortus sanitatis” of the Schola Medica Salernitana.  And all this would have been completely natural and organic: everything was back then.

So how does Trotula’s treatise look to the modern eye?


Some of her remedies look uncannily modern.  Trotula recommends camphor for sunburn.  Derivatives of camphor are still used in modern sunscreens.  Frankincense is recommended for skin care.   Although L’Oreal are trying to project a modern image by calling it Boswellox, this is still available on supermarket shelves.

Some resemblances are uncanny.  I was told by the woman on the Benefit counter in my local department store that their current biggest seller is their reddening product, Posietint.  A similar treatment was recommended in the eleventh century,  namely rosewater used to restore the red colour in the face and lips of women who had become pale.

Other suggestions are harder to understand. A treatment to lengthen the hair and to darken its colour involved boiling the head and tail of a green lizard in ointment.  Not only would this contravene current EU cosmetic legislation and offend animal lovers , it is hard to see how it could have worked.   I don’t dismiss it out of hand though.   Trotula was considered a great authority in her time.  She even gets a mention in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.   She may well have known something I don’t.

But in any case it is nice to think of  today’s dedicated beauty bloggers with their laptops and samples continuing a long tradition.   It can be traced back to Trotula enjoying the Mediterranean sunshine in the herb garden in Medieval Salerno and writing a treatise that is still being read 1,000 years later.

Modern Salerno

(My special thanks for the authors of the paper that I used as the main reference for this blog. Even translated into modern English the treatise is heavy going so it was great to have a detailed summary to work from.)


P. Cavallo, M. C. Proto, C. Patruno, A. Del Sorbo, M. Bifulco (2008) The first cosmetic treatise of history. A female point of view International Journal of Cosmetic Science 30 (2),p79-86