Remedies to improve the complexion and remove warts, spots and boils have been in use since antiquity. Donkey milk, turpentine and crocodile faeces were all applied to the skin. Bathing in wine, known as vinotherapy, was adopted among the elite in the 1500s and 1600s. Another common home remedy was to rub the skin with a ‘flesh brush’ to improve health and circulation. Self-treatment was common and the sick only visited a medical practitioner when their ailment became increasingly painful, appeared to be dangerous or threatened to leave a permanent mark.

In the 1800s older terms for skin complaints such as wen, impostume and token began to be replaced by cyst, abscess and pustule. Long-established remedies were replaced by new treatments, including electricity and ultraviolet light.

The skin was no longer a flat screen to be coated and cut, but a complex structure to be studied and manipulated. Scientific advances also led to increased knowledge of the dangers of previously popular treatments for skin complaints such as arsenic, lead and opium.


Folklore is filled with theories on the causes of warts and the best ways to treat them. Killing a toad was thought to be one cause, as well as contact with animals, particularly cows and chickens.

According to folklore, warts could be cured by transference, by natural remedies and by rituals and prayers. Transference involved passing the wart on to another person or an inanimate object. One option was to fill a bag with as many pebbles as you had warts, then toss the bag over your shoulder – your warts would be transferred to whoever picked up the bag. Recipes for the treatment of warts were usually particularly disgusting, including pig’s blood, spittle and fish heads. And if those didn’t work, you could try rubbing your wart with a potato which you then buried, or washing your hands in moonbeams, in an otherwise empty bowl.


The desire to put a stop to ageing, or at least the visible signs of it, is an old one. In ancient Greece face masks were made from a combination of mud and crocodile dung. Cold cream and other oil-based skin moisturisers have been in use for at least as long. In the 1600s wealthy Elizabethan women placed slices of raw meat on their faces to reduce wrinkles. In the 1700s aristocratic French women washed their faces in red wine.

By the late 1800s new technologies were brought into the fight against ageing. Electrical therapies proved popular, including electrified rollers, daily shock treatments and a popular patented device called the 'Overbeck Rejuvenator' which involved attaching electrodes to the body. Anti-wrinkle patches, which were essentially pieces of surgical tape, were marketed to be worn during the night to prevent wrinkles.


There are two different types of freckles. The most common are ephelides, which are flat marks which tend to fluctuate with the seasons. These are more common in children and tend to fade with age. The other kind are lentigines, which are also known as liver spots.

Early theories about the causes of freckles connected them to the humours, which were the fluids in a person’s body which needed to be kept in balance to maintain health. During the summer, when the liver was believed to produce excessive yellow bile, this matter was then deposited on the skin. The term liver spots is a remnant of this humoural theory.

By the early 1900s mass advertising was targeting freckles in a big way. Stillman’s Freckle Cream used taglines like ‘Your Freckles ruin your appearance’ and ‘Your ugly embarrassing freckles’. New treatments were developed, including the use of dry ice and skin peels.


Early treatments for corns included beef suet, powdered frankincense and fig juice. Hippocrates recommended the removal of corns altogether and invented skin scrapers for this purpose. Rhazes, the Persian polymath, prescribed arsenic, mercury and quick lime with oil and the ashes of acorns.

Street hawkers selling their corn remedies were a frequent sight in towns and cities across Europe. The products they sold to combat corns included salves, plasters, creams and foot baths.

By the 1600s corn-cutter was a lucrative occupation. Employing your own personal cutter became a mark of aristocracy. The publication, in 1785, of a text titled Chiropodologia led to the rise of chiropody as a profession and King George IV, Queen Victoria and Napoleon Bonaparte were amongst those who retained personal chiropodists to treat their corns.


Ancient Egyptians applied kohl eye makeup, which often contained lead. In Ancient Greece and Rome lead was applied to the whole face in a cream or lotion to lighten the skin. Lead was also used as a common skin lightener in East Asia, alongside less harmful products such as sandalwood paste and rice flour. Skin whitening is associated with racism, colonialism and caste systems.

It was also associated with social class. Pale skin was desirable because it showed that you could afford not to work outside in the sun. The less well-off mimicked this look using flour, egg whites and talc. From the 1400s onwards the ‘dead white’ look became very fashionable in Europe. The lead ate away at the skin, causing scarring which required even more lead makeup to cover it. It also eroded tooth enamel and could cause blindness, hallucinations and even death.


In the 1600s soap began to be heavily taxed in England, and consequently store-bought soap was only available to the wealthiest members of society. Soap making equipment was closely supervised by revenue officials, who kept the keys to the soap pans when they were not in use to prevent illegal manufacture after hours. Recipes for homemade soaps abounded, however. It was not until 1853 that the soap tax was repealed, allowing soap to be affordable to more people.

Soap advertisements began to appear in newspapers, journals and on billboards. Soap was promoted not only for cleansing the body but also for making the complexion clear and the skin soft. Scented soaps were introduced, marketed as being gentler for those with delicate complexions. Many advertisements included racist depictions of African bodies being washed white and alluded to the so-called ‘civilising’ force of British colonialism.


Everything causes acne, or at least according to those who wrote about it. Too much sex, too little sex. Too much fresh air, and too little time outdoors. Similarly, almost anything could be viewed as a cure for acne. Early treatments included honey, patchouli oil, fennel, eggs, turpentine and ‘the urine of an old man’. By the early 1900s experiments were being carried out with more scientific treatments, including the use of x-rays, zinc oxide, sulfur and citric acid.

For a brief time in the 1600s pimples were, in a sense, fashionable. Women in Europe suffering from pimples, or scarring from smallpox or syphilis, began to wear tiny pieces of black velvet or silk on their faces. Increasingly these patches, known as ‘mouches’, or flies, started a trend. They were often fashioned into the shape of moons, stars, or even more elaborate designs.


This blog was developed to accompany the exhibition Skin: A Layered History, which runs from 10 February 2023 to 13 October 2023.

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