Beauty routines in Ancient Rome – Bathing and Hair Removal

ancient roman beauty

Women in Ancient Rome dedicated a lot of attention to their beauty treatments, make up and hairstyles. Let’s dive in and discover the Ancient Roman beauty secrets!

Skincare and makeup

Their methods and recipes may look to us quite weird, unpleasant and not really healthy. However we have to consider that these were the result of the knowledge of the time. That science and medicine were not yet aware of the toxicity of some elements. To mention an example: white lead, a highly toxic ingredient which caused sterility, and also affected the brain cells. Imagine, they used white lead as foundation until the 1800s!

Ovid, a famous Roman writer (who lived between 43BC and 18AD) describes the best beauty routine advice to Roman women, starting with a premise: your lover must not know your beauty secrets, he will only have to see the results and should not see you in the process of applying sticky, smelly creams. Apply these beauty tips only when no one is looking at you. You will look even more beautiful when the job is done!

But let’s go straight to some details!

ancient rome beauty
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A fresco that was found in Pompeii in the House of Terentius Neo. Today in the Archaeological Museum of Naples

Bathing

Ovid recommended to have a full body bath once a week, but to wash legs and arms everyday, as they would get dirty during work.

Consider that only a few lucky ones had a bath and water at home at the time. So very few could afford to have a daily bath.

There were also some more sophisticated routines, such as the one of Poppaea (wife of the emperor Nero) who used to have her beauty bath in donkey’s milk. That is why when she travelled she always carried her 500 donkeys with her 🙂

Apart from some lucky ones, such as Poppaea, the rest of the mortal people used to go to thermal baths. These were public buildings including changing rooms, saunas, steam rooms, swimming pools and more. The ruins of some of these baths can still be visited today in Rome, such as the Baths of Caracalla (where many theater and musical events take place today) and the Baths of Diocletian (part of which has been converted into a church!).

But how did Romans wash themselves? They would use sponges and detergents made of abrasive substances, such as pumice stone and baking soda. These abrasive detergents required that after a bath one would need to spread on her skin some perfumed oil to give back elasticity and softness. Ancient Romans had a preference for sweet and floral perfumes, especially the ones that were very strong and persistent. Perfume would have to emerge from the smells of the city, where you would have found free animals around and open-air sewages.

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Colored eyeshadow was also applied by Roman women to accentuate their eyes. Green eyeshadow came from poisonous malachite, while blue came from azurite.Also shown are biacca (white lead) and terra rossa di Selina terra rossa (red oxide). Wikimedia Commons

Mouth washing

Now hold on tight, you are about to discover how ancient Romans washed their teeth!

They used a powder, called dentifricium, made of saltpeter and baking soda. But, there were also people that would wash their mouth with urine!! 🙁

They also had instruments to remove food residues such as our modern toothpicks, which were called dentiscalpium. These were made of wood or metal, or even of silver and gold.

Hair removal

Ovid recommended: “may never your legs be bristly!”. Those annoying leg hair have been bothering women since antiquity!

How did women follow Ovid recommendation? They would depilate their underarms and legs with wax, hair removal cream (made of tar, oil and resin) or tweezers.

Men also epilated their body hair, including Caesar and Augustus. These emperors used to scorch their legs with red-hot shells of walnuts to have their hair grow softer.

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Written by Federica

Creative director of Live Virtual Guide. Her favorite things are gelato, pizza and the hidden gems of Rome.
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