Beauty and youth are human endeavours. We’ve dreamed of immortality and eternal beauty for as long as we’ve been around. Various myths from around the world have figures who achieved such things in one way or another, but it continues to elude the more mundane real world. It hasn’t stopped us from trying to seek out every edge we can against the signs of aging. Almost every civilization has had some form of beauty and self-care knowledge designed for just this. The Ancient Egyptians were no different in this regard. They were particularly concerned with finding ways to stave of the signs of aging for as long as possible. Cleopatra availed herself of a lot of this beauty knowledge to maintain her appearance. Notably, some people even claim she used a chemical peel to maintain her appearance. It is enough to make one wonder if the Ancient Egyptians actually knew about chemical peels or if it is a modern myth.
A chemical peel is, simply defined, the practice of applying an acidic compound to the face for the purposes of skin regeneration and smoothing. They come in varying levels of power and ability depending on their exact formulation, but the general concept is quite simple. In the modern era, we have access to many acids, both natural and synthetic, to serve this purpose. We know the right concentrations and can achieve noticeable results in one or two sitting depending on whether the peel is at-home or supervised. It may seem ultra-modern, but in truth people have known about naturally acidic substances for a long time. They also generally knew they had a beneficial effect on the skin as well. The only obvious catch is that most of them likely didn’t know the word “acid” or have the same concept of “chemical peel” as we do. After all, they wouldn’t necessarily have had access to the same strengths of acids.
Ancient Egyptian Peels?
What the Ancient Egyptians actually knew about was the beauty properties of milk. Milk, known as lactic acid in some circles, actually is lightly acidic, but most of us don’t notice in the era of pasteurization and different preparations of milk. The Ancient Egyptians were particularly known for utilizing milk and honey in baths and in masks. Those are both places where they can do good for the skin. Of particular note though is that some sources highlight that the Egyptians specifically used soured milk when making a mask. Sour milk is more obviously acidic than fresh milk, another reason we’re not familiar with it, and would actually make for the basis for a simple chemical peel mask given that lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA). AHAs are incredibly common ingredients in today’s chemical peels and used in at-home peeling products in particular.
So They Had Peels?
Knowing what we know, it gets tricky to actually say definitively whether Ancient Egyptians knew about chemical peels. They were very clearly aware of the chemical properties of the substances around them, to a degree, and figured out how to utilize them for beauty. It is one of the many signs of how advanced Ancient Egyptian culture actually was at the time. The catch is that a simple sour milk mask wouldn’t necessarily have been enough to actually cause the peeling that gives the chemical peel its name. It would have been enough to give the skin a boost though and act as a chemical exfoliant. This is, in some ways, simply splitting hairs over the definition, but one could argue peels are defined by the peeling they cause. Regardless, the Ancient Egyptians certainly knew just as well that acidic compounds could be made into skin friendly beauty products.
Whether or not you think the Ancient Egyptians can be said to have mastered a form of chemical peel is ultimately up to you. The verdict can go either way depending on how you choose to define a peel. For many people, they need the peeling part to use the name, but the sour milk and honey masks of Ancient Egypt would certainly meet the basic definition of a procedure that applies a light acid to the face for the purpose of cosmetic improvement. Naturally, this approach wasn’t as effective as our procedures are today, but they remained effective enough that the Ancient Egyptians both trusted them and preserved it as a secret of beauty.