Art historian Erin Griffey is something of an expert on beauty. “I’m one of those people who reads the back of beauty products,” she says. So while working on a book about beauty culture in Renaissance Europe, Griffey experienced déjà vu.
She realized that many ingredients in beauty recipes from the 16th to 18th centuries (collected from books, cosmetic recipe collections, medical texts, manuscripts of health regimens, herbs, and pharmacopoeias) also appear on modern beauty packaging. For example, rose water is used in modern moisturizing skin sprays, and sulfur is found in some over-the-counter acne creams.
Such similarities are clues to what Renaissance people used the products for and how they worked. But they are not the whole story. That’s because old recipes also often list strange or even dangerous ingredients, from bile acids and calves’ hooves to lead and the poisonous bryony plant. To gain a better understanding, Griffey wanted to recreate the recipes. So he turned to his colleagues at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Therefore, the nice chemistry project was born.
The team began with what Griffey calls “sticky recipes” because they are found in many sources throughout the Renaissance period: rosemary flowers in white wine, powdered myrrh with egg whites, and the velvety covering of freshly grown deer antlers. . with bean flour.
Recipes tend to be vague and varied. So chemist Michel Nieuwoudt and his team experiment with measurements and procedures while Griffey searches various sources for more clues about the types and proportions of ingredients.
“We knew we couldn’t recreate it exactly the way it is,” Griffey says of the rosemary blossoms in white wine recipe. “We don’t have access to the rosemary plants that grew 500 years ago or the wines and whatever their chemical composition is.” But this preliminary work “allowed us to come closer to an approximation.”
Nieuwoudt and his team boiled rosemary flowers in round-bottomed flasks, each filled with a different solution: sweet white wine, dry white wine, ethanol in water, or aqua vitae. Once the researchers filtered the flowers and analyzed the resulting mixtures using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, they found chemicals that are common in today’s skin care products, including camphor, eucalyptol, and the fragrant alcohol linalool (Serial number: 7/22/02).
The recipe from the Renaissance era said that the potion would “make the face beautiful”. Nieuwoudt’s findings suggest how: by toning and moisturizing the skin.
The team has also made progress in unlocking the secrets of myrrh powder and egg whites. Experiments suggest that myrrh extracts protein from egg whites, and egg whites extract resins, sugars, and volatiles from myrrh. That results in a whey-like product that has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties and likely stimulates collagen growth, says Nieuwoudt. “There seems to be a synergy between all these different ingredients, and that’s why it works.”
As for what the deer velvet and bean meal might have been used for, the researchers are still getting results. And they have yet to tackle recipes with dangerous ingredients.
Eventually, the researchers hope to perfect their recreations and bring the products to drugstore shelves, minus, of course, any unsafe ingredients. “I think people will want to go back to something that’s natural, and it’s also appealing to people to think they’re using Renaissance products,” says Nieuwoudt. Until then, the beauty for researchers lies in “digging [the recipes] out and understanding them.”