The Secret Ingredient In Ancient Roman Face Cream

It wasn’t nearly as dangerous as other formulations of the day.

There have been a lot of beauty trends throughout history that have been at least a little suspect. From sandpapering unwanted body hair to getting your hair squeaky clean, many of them are not advisable today. For ancient Roman women beauty said a lot about who you were and sometimes beauty was pain. Along with the many routines and the elaborate hairstyles that wealthy women of the Roman Empire would have engaged in, their cosmetics were of the utmost importance as well.

marble bust of ancient Roman woman
Via: Metropolitan Museum of Art

A small canister of face cream was discovered in 2003 that dates back to the 2nd century in the Roman era. The container was discovered in a ditch along the south bank of the Thames which was situated on the edge of a temple complex in Roman times. Worshipers would offer objects of value and beauty to the gods, but it is unknown how exactly this canister ended up in the ditch or if it could have been an offering as well.

Surprisingly the contents of the canister were still creamy and even bore finger marks across the cream stuck to the lid, presumably from the last person to use or handle it.

When tested the cream had 3 main ingredients. The first was animal fat for its moisturizing properties, the second was a binder of starch. The third ingredient was unexpected: tin oxide. Normally creams of the this era (and some as late as the 1700s) would have contained lead for it’s opaque white effect on the skin.

The tin in this cream would have given a similar effect to the wearer, perhaps with fewer detrimental health effects of lead since tin oxide is not a very hazardous compound. Ancient Roman women of wealthy families would have favored lighter skin tones on the face to show that they never worked outside in manual labor and had servants to do things for them.

woman having her hair done by servant at Pompeii fresco
Via: Carole Raddato/Flickr

Unlike the lead-based creams which damaged skin terribly and could even cause death, the cream found in the ditch seems like it would have been like more like a tinted moisturizer of yore.

According to the Museum of London, where the canister is on display, the cream would have provided moisture and a “translucent glow” to the skin. There are no mentions of using tin oxide in cosmetics from ancient Roman writings, making this a truly novel find.

Museum of London
Via: Chris McKenna /Wiki Commons