As this is published, I will be giving a joint lecture for the British Society of Pharmacy and the Welsh School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science. I was really honoured to be invited to do this, and I feel this event deserves a celebratory, sunny post.
In this little corner of Wales, we have had quite a lot of rain in the last few weeks, but I am not complaining: we had a glorious summer. It was sunny but not too hot (I am not a fan of heat), and because we still had some rain, the trees and grass remained green. This was followed by a beautiful after-season in September and early October. In memory of this, I had a look at ancient sun-protection recipes. Oribasius (fourth century CE, physician to the Emperor Julian) preserves a few recipes to protect the face and body from sun damage:
Remedies to make the face bright (lamprunon), wrinkle free, glistening, and of good complexion; to prevent from it from being burnt by the sun; and to heal sunburns.
The edible cucumber and the melon brighten the body, especially if you dry their seeds, chop them, sift and use as a cleanser.
The dung of the land crocodile makes the face bright and wrinkle free.
The dung of starlings has the same effect, but only when they feed on rice. It also removes freckles.
Roast the root of the wild cucumber, chop, boil in water, crush well, and apply. It makes the face wrinkle free and white.
Similarly, boil the root of bryony in oil and apply; it makes the face glistening.
Or mix bitter vetch meal with sweet-smelling wine and apply.
Or sift the juice of the finest wheaten flour; pour out the liquid and mix the sediment with an egg white until it has the consistency of honey. And apply this to the face when you intend to spend time in the sun. After exposure to the sun, wash your face with lots of warm water. Chian earth applied with mastic also gives a good complexion to the face.
This gives a good complexion to the face and the entire body: take chips of cypress and oak wood; boil them together; and use the decoction to anoint the entire body.
This prevents sunburns and heals them: crush white bulb with honey and anoint. [Oribasius, Books to Eunapius 4.53.t]
This is a typical mix of ancient recipes: the simple herbal recipes are to be found alongside more ‘exotic’ remedies involving crocodile dung. Women in the ancient world were supposed to keep their skin white. In order to do so, they could either use preventative remedies like those outlined above, or they could apply whitening cosmetics. These sometimes contained lead oxide, and would certainly have done no good to the skin. Many ancient authors criticised women for applying such whitening creams. Christian authors in particular claimed that virtue rather than cosmetics and other ornaments ‘made a woman’s face bright’ – they used the same phraseology as the medical writers. They also wrote that sacred oil illuminated the face.
I wanted to try one of these recipes. The sunblock with wheat flour and egg white seemed simple enough. I also found a clearer version of it in the works of Aetius (sixth century CE):
Protective unguents for the face so that it is not burnt by the sun… Another one worth mentioning: wash the finest wheaten flour and sift it through a cloth; pour out the water and discard it; mix the sediment with an egg white; make it to the consistency of honey; anoint the face with it when you intend to spend time in the sun. After sun exposure, cleanse with much warm water. [Aetius: 8.3.7]
I sifted flour mixed with water through a muslin square. I used what was left in the muslin square and mixed it with the white of an egg. I then applied it to my skin. It formed a layer, which I guess could offer some sort of protection against the sun. Apparently, some people still reccomend egg whites to heal burns, a practice that is not encouraged by medical doctors.