While so much has changed over the last few millennia, one thing hasn’t: People want to look and feel their best. Folks in ancient civilizations may not have had the convenience of browsing cosmetic aisles (or adding to their carts online), but that didn’t stop them from ingeniously scoring smoother skin and healthier hair, highlighting their best features, and looking fabulous for important events.
In fact, many of their ancient beauty rituals were so effective that variations of them are still used today. Here are five such grooming secrets that have stood the test of time.
Mehndi is an ancient art form that uses a thick paste of ground-up henna leaves to create ornate designs on the skin. Its exact origins are the subject of some debate, but it has been practiced throughout India, the Middle East, and Africa for thousands of years. According to Carine Fabius, who wrote Mehndi: The Art of Henna Body Painting, similar pastes were originally used to combat high temps in the brutally hot Indian desert. Dipping one's hands and feet in mud made with crushed henna produced a cooling effect that lasted as long as the dye did. Eventually, this practice evolved into the delicate form of artistry we know today.
Traditionally, mehndi has been reserved for specific events or milestones such as weddings, births, holidays, and festivals. According to the PBS website for the documentary series The New Americans, some cultures also mark their homes and farm animals with henna as a spiritual form of protection against evil.
Decorating one's skin with henna is still a beloved tradition for celebrations and cultural ceremonies today. In India, for example, it's custom for a bride to have a mehndi party the day before her wedding. Recently, however, henna has also made its way into the mainstream: Many people, including celebrities, have been known to partake in henna treatments just for fun or as a temporary tattoo alternative. And in 2020, some influencers tried using henna to create faux freckles. Use of henna for such purposes is controversial for many reasons, not the least of which is the debate over appropriation. But the art of mehndi remains an important and treasured part of many cultures.
Ancient Egyptians reportedly also used henna to help camouflage gray hairs — sort of like an early iteration of hair dye. Henna-based hair color is still considered one of the most natural ways to dye your strands to this day.
Avocado Face and Hair Masks
Avocado face and hair masks may be newly trendy, but they're certainly not new. The first avocado trees date back to as early as 7000 B.C. in Mexico, Central America, and South America. They were cultivated as a food source, of course, but the Aztecs, Incas, and Maya people also used the fruit for health and beauty purposes, making masks with the pulp and oil to nourish, hydrate, and repair their skin and hair.
Why avocados? They’re considered a superfood because they’re packed with beneficial nutrients that can fortify you from the inside out and vice versa. For example, the natural oils can hydrate and reduce fine lines on your skin, while antioxidants help protect cells from free radical damage (an important consideration in anti-aging). Avocados also contain lutein, which boosts elasticity and is good for your eyes, and vitamins B and E, which target hair dryness and damage, soothe the scalp, increase shine, and reduce dandruff.
It's no wonder so many beauty experts still recommend DIY avocado face or hair masks. The benefits have proved to be so effective, in fact, that avocado oils and extracts have become key ingredients in some of the industry’s most popular product lines.
Cleopatra, one of history’s most fascinating beauty icons, was rumored to have many interesting — and sometimes controversial — cosmetic rituals. Legend has it that part of her elaborate routine involved soaking in donkey milk baths. Some sources even claim that she preferred sour donkey milk, because it contained more lactic acid and offered an even smoother result.
Milk baths were supposedly used by the Romans, too — most notably Empress Poppaea Sabina. According to ancient historian and author Pliny the Elder, it was believed that donkey milk “effaces wrinkles in the face [and] renders the skin more delicate…. It is a well-known fact that some women are in the habit of washing their face with it seven hundred times daily.”
That frequency seems implausible, but the ancient Egyptians and Romans may have been on to something. Thanks to naturally occurring ingredients including proteins and lactic acid (a type of alpha-hydroxy acid), milk baths gently exfoliate and moisturize skin, leaving it silky, soft, and smooth. Milk baths have also been known to soothe poison ivy, sunburn, and inflammation. And since milk is nourishing and calming, it may have mind-body benefits too.
Today, milk baths (now using powdered cow’s milk, coconut milk, and other substitutes) are offered as treatments at many luxurious spas. You can even find ready-made versions to pour into your tub on drugstore shelves and in high-end beauty shops. And you can always try creating your own concoction using items from your fridge and pantry — no donkeys needed.
Kohl or Kajal Lined Eyes
Folks across the globe have been lining and defining their eyes since the Bronze Age. Ancient Egyptians reportedly used a lead-based pigment called kohl (also known as kajal) to adorn their eyes, treat eye ailments, prevent damage from the sun’s harsh rays, and protect against "the evil eye." Generous amounts were applied to the upper and lower lash lines using one’s fingertips or a stick made of ivory, bone, wood, or metal.
Kajal has been a tradition in much of South Asia as well, particularly in India. There, as in other countries and cultures, it is used as both a cosmetic accessory and spiritual protection against nazar (the evil eye) — the latter even on small children.
Today, we’ve moved away from the original lead-based version for safety reasons. But dark, smoky, rimmed eyes (a.k.a. “a smoky eye”) remain a consistent go-to for makeup artists and enthusiasts everywhere.
Gua sha is a treatment that uses a tool to glide over the curvature of the face to "stimulate meridian points, detoxify, bring new blood to the surface, and promote lymphatic drainage," according to Anna Lam, the founder of GingerChi spa in New York City. It's supposed to relax the tension in facial muscles and help balance, tone, and promoteelasticity of the skin.
There’s evidence that gua sha dates all the way back to the Paleolithic Age; back then, according to Harper's Bazaar, hunter-gatherers used stones to massage the body to treat pain. By the Ming Dynasty era, Chinese healers were using stones and spoons to "scrape away" muscle tension and illness. (One frequently cited translation of gua is "to scrape.")
Thanks in part to social media, gua sha is back in a big way. Elegant gua sha tools, typically made of jade, rose quartz, or other semiprecious stones, are all over Instagram. And the actual technique is very satisfying to watch — often you can see a difference after one treatment. As videos of gua sha are created and shared, interest in the practice has spiked. But it’s not just about snapping selfies. This ancient skincare ritual has survived so many centuries because it really works.