The History of Beauty Face Masks

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In quarantine, there are face masks and there are face masks–the former being a protective accessory and the latter a form of skincare. While one is certainly more necessary than the other, the newfound importance of beauty and self-care in the era of COVID-19 has created a spike in the use of facial masks as seen on celebrities and models, from Sophia Richie to Bella Hadid.

While donning a quick sheet mask as part of a beauty regimen may seem commonplace today, the rich history of face masks as a skincare essential proves that attaining the perfect complexion took a lot of experimentation and innovation, some of which might have modern dermatologists raising an eyebrow.

The roots of the face mask stretch all the way back to ancient times. Nearly 5,000 years ago in ancient India, participants in the holistic lifestyle known as Ayurveda (“life and knowledge”) created face and body masks called ubtan, which historians now deem as one of the very first cosmetic products in the world. The ingredients of ubtan masks changed with the seasons, but the basics always included fresh herbs, plants such as aloe vera, roots such as turmeric, and flowers. Tested and mixed according to skin type, the masks fulfilled the desire to both improve one’s appearance and also contribute to lifelong health. The masks soon became the preparation ritual of choice for women before religious ceremonies like Diwali and the Haldi wedding ceremony. Today, the tenets of the Ayurveda lifestyle have not changed much, and women continue to use the same ingredients in their masks.

Similar to India, ancient Egyptians made waves in skincare that have lasted throughout the centuries. Obsessed with outward appearances, their first face masks were made of clay, and soon branched out to milk and honey, as well as the more questionable crocodile dung. A pinnacle of beauty in the ancient world, Cleopatra was a pioneer of such beauty practices. Known to soak in exfoliating donkey’s milk baths, the ruler applied a mask made with mud from the Dead Sea twice weekly to cleanse her skin and maintain her complexion, and introduced egg whites as an ingredient to masks for a youthful glow.

Another ancient trendsetter was Yang Guifei of the Tang Dynasty in China, heralded as one of the Four Ancient Beauties of China. For a brightening effect, Guifei mixed a powder of ground natural materials such as pearl, jadeite, tea leaves, ginger root, and lotus flower with water into a mask. The other women of the court of the Emperor Xuanzong quickly followed suit.

Meanwhile, in ancient Rome, beauty gurus spent their time mixing up strange concoctions for the face. They started off with typical ingredients such as oils and honey, but also introduced basil juice, vinegar, goose fat, and even snail ashes, human placentas, and animal waste from kingfisher birds and cows, all believed to contain healing properties for the skin.

As skin rituals and routines took shape in the ancient world, ideas slowly began to spread west and infiltrate Europe. One look at any medieval painting and it becomes evident that, for women, maintaining a pearly, porcelain-white complexion was all the rage in the Middle Ages. To make their skin more pale, women sometimes resorted to dangerous techniques. They applied bloodsucking leeches to their faces, or masks made of calf and hare blood, as this was thought to reduce the appearance of dark spots and freckles.

This obsession did not stop by the Renaissance. In fact, attempts to whiten skin surged under the reign of Elizabeth I, who was known to wear layers of snowy white makeup herself to conceal years of skin damage from smallpox. Women also combined known toxins today, such as white lead and mercury, with honey and olive oil. On the safer side, Cleopatra’s reliance on egg whites resurfaced, this time mixed with lemon juice for the ultimate brightening mask still used in modern times.

Moving into the 17th and 18th centuries, cosmetics took shape as an industry, and face masks entered European vernacular. Alongside a bevy of perfumes and heavy makeup products, Queen Marie Antoinette reintroduced skincare to society, falling back on the traditional egg white mixture with various solvents, including the ever-so-French Cognac wine. Antoinette drove home the idea that under lavish makeup should always remain a healthy foundation of skin.

By the 19th century, the marketplace had completely changed with the rise of the department store, and beauty products made the transatlantic journey to America. One such invention by milliner and dressmaker Madam Helen Rowley literally changed the face of cosmetics. From her home in Ohio, Rowley crafted her famous “toilet mask,” also known as the “face glove,” patented in 1875. The soft and pliable contraption featured head straps, and was worn three nights a week while sleeping. Intended to fight discoloration, unclog pores, and induce “perspiration with a view to soften and clarify the skin by relieving the pores and the superficial circulation,” the face glove was discontinued because it became a suffocation hazard.

However, numerous iterations of Rowley’s game-changing mask emerged well into the 20th century, and soon the quest for safe and effective cosmetic skincare was underway. Makeup products surged alongside stage and film acting, and soon skincare regimens became the new normal. The 1960s saw the rise of the cleanse-tone-moisturize trifecta, and by the ‘80s, collagen became a buzz ingredient to boost skin texture and strength. Face masks became a luxury treatment, largely reserved for spas and facials.

As K-beauty broke into the American market in the 2010s, known for its extensive skincare steps and potent ingredients, sheet masks became a welcome addition to the common beauty arsenal. Soaked in serums, the tissue-thin, easy-to-apply masks offer a one-step facial treatment that can be done at home, on an airplane, or anywhere else for that matter. Coupled with the simultaneous rise of Instagram stories, images of celebrities, models, and women at home sporting their sheet masks saturated the social media platform, leading to the widespread popularity of the skincare product.

However, amidst the skincare frenzy, questions as to the efficacy of sheet masks began to surface and the great mask-serum debate rose to the surface. Critics argued that the masks offer the same benefits as topical serums, but their disposable nature makes them hardly cost-effective. Where you might get 60 pumps out of a serum bottle, masks are made for one-time use. It also became increasingly difficult to distinguish between quality of sheet masks because of their vast price ranges. While there has yet to be scientific proof as to the efficacy of sheet masks over topical beauty products, some remain suspicious of the trend for other reasons. Culture writer Anna Silman wrote, “a sheet-mask selfie is the perfect act of safe exhibitionism: it pretends to be a raw, revealing peek behind the curtain—showing how the beauty sausage gets made—while actually being as calculated and generic as anything else people choose to post online.”

Despite the debates, sheet masks and other face masks have become a common step in the ritual of skincare as self-care. Today, there are four distinct mask categories: peel-off, rinse-off, hydrogel, and sheet masks. There is a mask for virtually every skincare-related need or issue, ranging from hydrating to exfoliating to brightening. Many ingredients used in the ancient tradition, such as turmeric and rosewater, remain popular today. There are even masks targeted towards specific parts of the body, from the under eyes to the bum.

Face masks have become a fun way to relax and unwind after a long day, or to prep the skin before a big event, and are cherished by celebrities and beauty fanatics alike. Whether clay or cucumber, night or morning, the history of face masks reminds us that good skincare goes a long way.

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