Whenever I’m reading a historical book, I’m fascinated by descriptions of the beauty rituals of yore. I love imagining Cleopatra moisturizing with the 40 BC version of a sheet mask before applying charcoal liner to her eyes. It’s truly wild to find that even ancient religious texts like the Bible and Quran reference people using olive oil and honey to beautify their skin and soak their hair. In this sense, not much has changed in the world of beauty—a lot of the ingredients used in natural products today have been passed down through generations. Still, while I’m personally fascinated by the history of beauty, and the rituals that haven’t changed, finding a comprehensive archive can be difficult in the age of floating internet articles.
This is precisely why I was delighted when I was introduced to Victoire De Taillac’s comprehensive An Atlas of Natural Beauty: Botanical Ingredients for Retaining and Enhancing Beauty. The book itself functions as a comprehensive philosophy of the Parisian beauty brand Buly, which was founded in 1803, and all of the ancient recipes and formulas that have inspired the brand’s evolution. The atlas details the history and use of over 80 botanical ingredients, how they can be mixed and applied to your skin, hair, and body, and even the spiritual beliefs attached to the botanicals.
Naturally, since I am a hands-on learner, my first impulse was to try the recipes for myself. I am far more likely to retain a history of botanicals if my body has felt the results firsthand, and skimming through a huge recipe book of masks is basically my dream (besides owning a hot tub and seducing Gael Garcia Bernal). I wanted to pick a recipe that didn’t feel too much like something I’ve tried, so no simple rose water face mists, but I also wanted to try something I actually need.
In the winter, my scalp gets very dry and flaky. I have lots of hair, but the individual strands are fine. So, whenever I use hair masks, my hair gets weighted down into a greasy, angry nightmare. For this reason, I’ve largely stayed away from them, even though I know they’re technically good for you. While feasting my eyes on the glorious natural recipes in this book, I decided it was time to face my grease-induced fears and try an ancient conditioning scalp mask.
While I’m familiar with jojoba oil as a trendy ingredient in the green beauty space, my knowledge has been limited to a vague notion of it being healthy and moisturizing, and not much beyond that. Unsurprisingly, according to the book, there is a rich history associated with the use of jojoba. Jojoba roots, also known as Simmondsia chinensis, are able to dig deep into the floor of the desert to accumulate moisture. The shrub is able to survive extreme heat because of its leaves that balance during peak heat and cool nights. And while only the female plants produce nuts, all of the protein-rich shrub blossoms can be harvested for seeds five months after bloom. When pressed, the seeds yield high oil counts, ranging from 45-60% oil, and can then be used for health and beautification.
In the 1789 book Historia de la Antigua o Baja California, the Jesuit priest Clavijero shares that jojoba was used by locals to heal wound scars and maintain hair and skin. Locals called it hohowi, a gift from the “Great Spirit,” and also infused drinks with the oil, claiming it would increase vitality. While jojoba has obviously contained the same health properties for decades— variety of omega 9 fatty acids that help moisturize skin (and hair) and heal scarring—modern commercial use didn’t popularize until the seventies.
The scalp mask recipe called for one tablespoon of jojoba oil, a full whisked egg, two drops of ylang-ylang, and two drops of rose water.
Once it was all whipped up, I felt ready to lovingly spread the goo all over my scalp as directed. The recipe was billed as a moisturizing and balancing recipe for irritated scalps, which accurately describes the mood of my dry head in the winter.
Embarrassingly enough, you can fully see how flaky my skin is in this photo.
(I look like I’ve never been in a photo before—I’m not sure what this half-present smile is attempting to communicate?)
Since this specific mask focuses more on the scalp than on the hair (although the benefits are meant for both), the application is meant to be focused just on the scalp itself. I have a lot of hair, so the mask only thoroughly soaked my roots and scalp, with a little bit covering the top of my head. I only left it on for five to 10 minutes before shampooing and conditioning. This is mostly because I was filled with fear after having greasy limp hair following past hair mask experiences, but the instructions for this recipe are pretty open-ended. You can leave it on longer depending on your skin and hair type.
Rather than feeling like a sad and disappointed grease-monster, as I often have after hair and scalp masks in the past, I actually felt like a fluffy, freshly-washed Golden Retriever after drying my hair. I think the consistency and protein of the egg helped my hair absorb the oils without getting weighed down. Or maybe, it was just the decades-old magic of the jojoba plant.
Obviously, my hair was bound to look better after shampoo and conditioning. But, as I mentioned before, in the past, even natural hair masks have left my freshly washed hair looking limp and heavy. I truly didn’t expect this age-old recipe to actually work on any level, so that was a supremely positive surprise. I already knew I wanted to explore more historical beauty secrets before whisking this jojoba oil goodness up, but now I’m even more excited to dive into the beauty secrets of the past.