Renaissance was an important phase in European history. It was a period of transition from the Middle Ages to modernity. The period between the 14th and 17th centuries was marked by the fervor in arts, culture, politics and economy. Now scientists are uncovering the beauty secrets of that era.
The enterprise named the Beautiful Chemistry Project is a joint endeavor of art historian Erin Griffey and her colleagues at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Griffey is somewhat of a beauty connoisseur and her interest in beauty products is what led to the birth of this project.
“I’m one of those people who reads the backs of beauty products,” she said.
While working on a book regarding beauty culture in Renaissance Europe, she had an epiphany. After scrutinizing books, cosmetic recipe collections, medical texts, health regimen manuscripts, herbals and pharmacopeias, Griffey noticed that the products used in that period were not very different from what we see today.
Two examples of these types of products are rosewater and sulfur. While rosewater is used in modern skin-hydrating mists, sulfur is used in some over-the-counter acne creams.
But there are two sides to these ancient beauty recipes as the latter also listed bizarre or even dangerous ingredients like bile acids, calves’ hooves, lead and the poisonous bryony plant.
Griffey wanted to re-create the recipes to get a better understanding of them. She collaborated with scientists from the University of Auckland in New Zealand and the Beautiful Chemistry Project was conceptualized.
The team began with “sticky recipes” because they found references to them in a multitude of sources throughout the Renaissance period. The recipes were rosemary flowers in white wine, myrrh powder with egg white and the velvety covering of newly grown deer antlers with bean flour.
There was a limitation to recreating recipes as there were no clear instructions in the source material. Thus, it was a process of trial and error with chemist Michel Nieuwoudt and her team experimenting with the measurements and procedures while Griffey went through various sources for ingredient types and ratios.
Speaking of the recipe for rosemary flowers in white wine as an example, Griffey said: “We knew we could not re-create it exactly as is. We do not have access to the rosemary plants that grew 500 years ago or the wines and whatever their chemical makeup was.”
But Griffey agreed that their efforts “enabled us to get closer to an approximation.”
Experimenting on rosemary flowers in round-bottom flasks each filled with a different solution- sweet white wine, dry white wine, ethanol in water, or aqua vitae, researchers found the presence of compounds seen in modern skin care products, such as soothing camphor, eucalyptol and the fragrant alcohol linalool.
The research team is yet to experiment with recipes with dangerous ingredients.
In the long run, the researchers want to perfect their re-creations and get the products to drug store shelves. “I think people will want to go back to something that is natural, and it’s also appealing for people to think they’re using Renaissance products,” Nieuwoudt said.