It isn’t just enough to get the dirt off your skin. Since time immemorial, we’ve sought to make our skin perfect: unmarred, unwrinkled, paler or darker depending on the fashions of the time. Those ads on TV, promising to make you look radiant and young forever? Not really new.
Though at least our skin care products now are less likely to poison you . . . maybe.
Even simple washing isn’t necessarily so simple. Modern “moisturizing” soaps still tend to dry out the skin; the soaps of the past were often much harsher. So after washing, especially in delicate places like the face and hands, you frequently need to take steps to restore some of the oil you’ve just stripped away. Assuming you can afford some kind of lotion, that is; money rears its head in all corners of life. Without that, you’re left with dry, chapped skin.
But it hardly stops there. Visible signs of aging are probably the single biggest change we try to forestall; even in cultures that revere their elders, I don’t think many people are in a hurry to get wrinkles and liver spots, and in the youth-obsessed modern West, they’re pretty much treated like the Worst Thing Ever. We may want to live for a long time, but we don’t want the mileage to show.
Truly dealing with changes like wrinkles requires understanding why they form — which is something we’ve only recently started to get a handle on. There’s real hope now that we will someday be able reverse the process of aging (and not only in our skin). Which is something the peddlers of skin care products have been promising for literally millennia, and we have tried pretty much everything in our quest to make it true: not just ointments and creams of all kinds, but more bizarre measures like bathing in ass’s milk or injecting botulism toxin into our faces. (The legend that Elizabeth Báthory bathed in the blood of virgins to maintain her youth is a later accretion, not attested at the time of her trial.)
Even if we haven’t always understood the long-term role of the sun in damaging our skin and creating signs of aging, we have known that we need to protect ourselves from it. Sunscreen as you think of it now is a product of the twentieth century; its predecessors were various extracts or pastes of plants. These might serve more than one purpose, too; in Myanmar and neighboring countries, thanaka (made from the ground bark of certain trees) not only protects against the sun, but provides a sense of coolness, inhibits fungal growth, and can be shaped into attractive designs. Anecdotally, it seems to me like premodern sunscreens have been the most common in tropical or subtropical regions near the sea — which makes sense, when you figure that the sun there is strong and reflects off the water. Of course, this will also be influenced by the phenotype of the local people, with naturally dark-skinned people having less to fear than their paler neighbors.
Acne is the other major scourge of our skin in terms of how widespread it is and how much we dislike it. Both this and wrinkles have a genetic component in terms of how likely you are to suffer them; acne also seems to be affected by diet, in ways that mean modern food may be increasing the incidence of pimples compared to what our ancestors suffered. But that doesn’t mean they were wholly immune, and they hated having zits as much as we do. Enter the same pharmacopeia of ointments and creams, whose ingredients I’m not bothering to list because honestly, they could be any damn thing from strawberry pulp to crocodile dung.
Some things our ancestors had to worry about are much less of a concern today. We still form scars after injuries, but we get tend to get injured less often, and — most importantly — we’ve eradicated smallpox. That one used to leave horrific scars on many of its survivors, especially if they contracted it later in life. These couldn’t so much be treated, but they could be covered up with cosmetics, provided you caked them on thickly enough. Of course, the cosmetics themselves often contained ingredients that weren’t so good for your skin . . .
Speaking of things that aren’t good for your skin, let’s talk about whitening products.
Pale skin (relative to the average for one’s region) was historically seen as desirable in many parts of the world, especially but not only for women, because it meant you weren’t working outdoors like a peasant. So naturally, a trade sprang up in products that promised to lighten your skin. Some of this was done with cosmetics, e.g. the white lead makeup common in both Europe and Asia, which had side effects like hair loss, lead poisoning, and skin erosion. But other treatments aimed to change the color of the skin itself, sometimes harmlessly (washing the face in urine or rice water), sometimes really not (ingesting arsenic wafers). Later on, when indoor work became common and a suntan became evidence that one could take leisurely vacations in sunny locales, suddenly we began selling tanning creams and spray-on tans, and lying down under UV lights in pursuit of that perfect bronze . . . right up until we realized the damage that could do, at which point paleness had a resurgence.
Such measures don’t always aim for the whole skin. They can instead be targeted at specific discolorations, whether those are acquired, like liver spots, or inborn, like port-wine stain birthmarks. Freckles occupy an ambiguous zone: in some eras they’re seen as cute, in others as a flaw, and where a given person falls on that spectrum may depend on whether they have an aesthetically acceptable quantity of freckles or way too many. Moles have similar ambiguity; a well-placed “beauty mark” can enhance one’s appearance (especially for women), and sometimes people paint one on, or attach a piece of fabric to their skin. Unsightly moles, however, are targets for bleaching or surgical removal.
And of course we can’t ignore the weight racism has placed on the scale over the last few centuries. Lighter skin may have originally been a marker of class, but when colonialism tilted the scales heavily toward European dominance, whiteness acquired a connotation of ethnic superiority — one we’re still laboring under today. Huge numbers of women in Africa, Asia, and Latin America invest in skin whitening products, even though these can cause side effects that don’t stop at the skin: everything from the kidneys to the brain can be damaged, especially if the material contains mercury. When looking paler can be as effective as education for increasing your social mobility, though, you can see why people think it’s worth the cost.
Which is why I feel like the old adage that “beauty is only skin deep” partially misses the point. Skin can be quite a deep topic on its own.