Object lesson No 64 Moisturisers

1st June 2001 at 01:00
Cleopatra knew a thing or two about skin care. That's why she packed a bargeful of unguents and fragrant oils when she went to meet Mark Antony. It's also why she rolled up in that rug. Age might not have withered her, but the Queen of the Nile was rightly wary of the Egyptian sun and wind.

She was following the tradition of her people, who had been using moisturising lotions to keep their skin supple since about 3000bc. Thanks, no doubt, to pyramid selling, the rich would not leave the planet without them.

When Tutankhamun's tomb near Luxor was opened in 1922, traces of scent still lingered in the pots of ointment buried with the boy pharaoh some 3,300 years before.

From the Egyptians to the Greeks - specifically Galen, a physician-philosopher who left behind him 20 volumes of medical theory and one recipe. Blend three parts olive oil, one part beeswax and as much water as you can. Add rose petals, andI eureka! The result was the first cold cream - so called because the water takes energy in the form of heat from the skin as it evaporates.

The Romans experimented with wool-wax or lanolin, butter and vegetable oil to relieve chafing (don't ask where). Nowadays, mineral oils are used and an emulsifier is added to help the blening, but otherwise the basic principles are unchanged. Dermatologically speaking, the body is wrapped in a layer of dead cells called the stratum corneum. This is equipped with water-retaining substances and covered with a film of oil called sebum. To bolster these natural defences we can use "occlusive" emollients which help to trap moisture or "humectants", such as glycerine and urea, which add water to the skin.

While Cleopatra subjected her stratum corneum to desert conditions, we have created our own problems. There's dry, centrally heated air, sunbathing and smoking, and the obsession with cleanliness which washes sebum straight down the plug-hole. Old age doesn't help as the body's sweat and oil glands tend to shrivel (about 85 per cent of older people apparently develop "winter itch" - not from being forced to wear woolly long johns, but from living in overheated houses).

Cosmetics in general fell out of favour with the decline of the Roman empire in AD500. In England they were not really back in vogue until the time of Elizabeth I. The Virgin Queen was not averse to an egg and honey mask to smooth away wrinkles after a long day grappling with her suitors.

Cleopatra would have understood.


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