The Scoop on Hygiene
Pale faces, mouth-washing with wine, and napkins for pads were definitely in during the Renaissance Period; however, we cannot even fathom what it would feel like to be using those methods and objects nowadays. One common aspect between the modern day and Renaissance periods are that women still “invest large amounts of time, money, and physical and emotional energy into their physical being” (Clarke 262). Renaissance women may have used totally different materials and ingredients, but they were just as costly as the Maybelline and Revlon cosmetic products we use today. Let’s now dive into the facts and find out what exactly women during the Renaissance Period used to keep themselves pretty and clean!
Women during the Renaissance Period had an interesting way of applying cosmetics, because they always seemed to have their faces “caked” on with make-up. White lead face paint was very popular among the Renaissance women, because they used it to paint their faces, neck, and cleavage. The lead was mixed with vinegar to conjure up a paste called ceruse. The only downfall was that the white lead made their hair fall out, which explains why Renaissance women had high foreheads and receding hairlines. Even though wide foreheads and receding hairlines may seem weird nowadays, it was considered fashionable during the Renaissance Period. Their eyebrows were usually shaved and replaced with fake ones made of mouse skin anyways. For lips, their form of lipstick was made of cochineal and beeswax. Also for their lips and even for their cheeks, women would wear rouge which was a red powder made of mercury sulphide. To accentuate the eyes, they would use iridescent eye shadow made of a ground mother of pearls.
In terms of skin care, freckles were looked down upon during their age, so the women would go through an infusion of elder leaves mixed with birch sap and sulphur in order to remove them. This substance was put on the skin by night time and removed in the morning with fresh butter. On the other hands, beauty marks were “in” during this time period, so a woman was regarded as gorgeous if she had one. For the ones who didn’t have one, they would use an imitation called beauty spots. Originally made from small circles of black velvet, these were best used to hide blemishes like warts, pimples, and chicken pox scars.
Taking care of their skin was extremely important for the Renaissance women. A cosmetic product that was popular during the Renaissance a make up pencil, which was made by “mixing plaster of Pairs with plant pigments to form stick which were dried in the sun” (“Beauty in History”). Also in order to keep it clear and soft, they would use red win, donkey’s milk, rain water, and even urine as facial cleaning products. Whisked egg whites were also used to glaze and tighten the skin to prevent any wrinkles. If these products didn’t seem intriguing enough, they would even use bear’s grease, which was a popular base for rouge and skin cream.
Remedies were very popular among the Renaissance women, because they could help with any beauty blemishes. Some skin care remedies consisted of using broom stalks to cleanse the skin and oatmeal boiled in vinegar to treat pimples. In any case of sunburn, woodbin ointment was highly recommended and what bread soaked in rose water was used to soothe puffy eyes in the morning.
An interesting fact was that the Renaissance women believed bathing themselves weakened the body, so they did not bathe regularly. As a matter of fact, “the middle and upper classes feared water, roughly from the Renaissance to the end of the 18th Century, they washed as little as peasants or the urban poor” (Ashenberg 170). If they did decide to bathe, baths were a mixture of hot water and milk with herbs to soften the skin. It was not until later when baths were considered a daily activity and indoor bathrooms were built into homes. Before then, baths were usually taken in tin tubs that were usually placed in front of a fire in a sitting room. For cleansing products, soap was commonly used and affordable to all classes. This was also during the time when commercial soap brands like Lux and Lever started coming out.
Instead of showering daily, they had a plethora of perfume fragrances to cover their body from giving off a bad odorous smell. The fragrances were usually made of rhubarb elixir and molasses water. A lot of the Italian and French fragrances were conveniently imported with the help of Queen Elizabeth I. Not only did they need their bodies smelling fresh and clean, they also used scented orris power from ground iris roots that were used to aromatize their clothes and household linen. To make sure their linen and clothes were washed properly, there were washerwomen, who were of “immense value, who has more work than anyone could imagine handling” (Biow 133). They had a tough job, because they would clean about 26 tablecloths, 40 napkins, 100 dishcloths, 20-30 diapers, and eight shirts, weekly.
Hair is one of the most essential parts of a woman’s body, because it is simply what identifies a girl as a “girl.” Because of this fact, girls during the Renaissance Period put a lot of thought and effort into grooming and taking care of their hair. They would produce such recipes as “encouraging hair growth and thickness, making hair curly, hair coloring, conditioning, perfuming, and getting rid of “itch-mites” (Green). When the women would color their hair, they would apply lotions derived from saffron flowers or sulphur. The color was placed under the hot summer sun for a bit and then carefully rinsed afterwards. Corrosive oil of vitriol, which was a sulphuric acid mixed with rhubarb juice was used as a hair tonic and lightener. The only flaw in this was that it resulted in hair loss.
Renaissance women dry shampooed their hair using fine powdered clays that were combed through to absorb the grease and dirt in the hair. In order to have smooth and soft hair like in the “Pantene Pro-V” commercials, women would often wash it in hot water with a powder of natron and vetch. After their hair is all dried, they would sprinkle powder that is made of a mixture of dried roses, clove, nutmeg, and watercress stirred in rose water onto their hair. Then, they would comb it to evenly spread out the mixture to promote a better fragrance smell.
One thing the Renaissance women had to watch out for was “itch-mites,” which were kind of like “lice” nowadays. In order to get rid of them, women had to mix myrtle berry, broom, clary, and vinegar in together and then vigorously rub the ends of their hair. This blend would definitely kill all of the itch-mites.
Long hair wasn’t washed as often in this period, so the women would keep it in braids and other arrangements because it would get tangled easily. Most of the woman, however, would commonly keep “their hair short and tuck their unwashed hair underneath wigs” (Green). Even though shampoo was invented at this time, women would insist on wearing the wigs, which were made of a mass of wool and animal grease. These wigs were extremely combustible, so it was highly recommended that they stay away from candles and other flammable objects. Even Queen Elizabeth I, one of the most celebrated women in her century, was very passionate in wearing red wigs.
During the Renaissance, people didn’t have toothbrushes, but they did have dental floss, mouthwash, chewing sticks, and soft cloths to polish their teeth clean after rinsing. Even though they didn’t have certified dentists back then, there were “medieval versions of dentists, who extracted teeth, filled cavities, made dentures and even fixed facial fractures” (Zajaczkowa). For rinsing their mouths, women would use acidic substances such as wine or vinegar. Not only were teeth rubbed with a soft cloth, women would use a mixture of herbs and abrasives for a cleaner effect. Women also emphasized having clean breath during the Renaissance Period, so they would use bay leaf/musk combination and spice pills to provide a good smell. All in all, the most common ingredients women would always use were “wine, salt and mint; alum and abrasive materials” (Zajaczkowa). Also, the first commercial toothpowder was invented during this time, which was made from a mixture of dried sage, nettles, and powdered clay. Women would use the most up-to-date equipment and materials to have shiny, clean, and white teeth.
Menstruation was considered unsanitary during the Renaissance Period, and every woman who had it during that “time of the month,” would be in a “state of menstrual pollution for seven days. Anyone who [touched] her [would] be unclean” (“Ailments and Cures of Medieval Women”). Even everything she touched or lied down on was considered unclean. Anybody who would touch her clothing and body were required to wash themselves immediately. An older woman who no longer menstruated was a serious safety concern, because the excess menstrual wastes inside her were believed to be poisonous to men and children. With this said, it was best that women did not have intercourse with their husbands during their menstruation period.
Renaissance women tried to keep themselves as clean as possible during their menstrual cycles. They wanted to absolutely stop the blood from getting on any of their clothes or anything else for that matter. Since they didn’t have pads back then, women would make something “absorbent out of pieces of cotton or chambray found in the ever-present “rag bag,” or they purchased gauze and cheesecloth for assembling their own pads” (Leavitt 156). Their form of tampons was called suppositories, which were made of cotton also and were placed in a woman’s “privy member.” They were held together with a thread around one of her thighs to prevent them from going completely into the uterus.
Although menstruation was considered dirty in society, it was actually really healthy for the women to menstruate at least once a month like even today. If a woman did not menstruate monthly, she suffered from “wandering of the uterus; a misplaces uterus could cause pain in other parts of the body, and even cause stoppage of breath” (Heise). If this was the case, women would have to take steam-baths and manual manipulation for treatment. Interestingly enough, part of the treatment included suggestions of marriage and sexual intercourse for younger women.