Ancient Egypt & Rome

Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, was renowned throughout history for her radiant skin and her stunning beauty. She was said to bathe in milk to keep her skin soft and beautiful. However, Cleopatra didn’t bathe in cow’s milk. The milk for her legendary baths was instead provided by donkeys. Legend has it that she required 700 lactating donkeys in order to supply the milk for her daily bathing regime.

Was Cleopatra alone in this bathing habit, which by our standards today would seem positively eccentric? Apparently not.  Poppaea Sabina (30 – 65 AD), Emperor Nero’s second wife, was also a fan of the milk bath. She was once told that in donkey’s milk “lurked a magic which would dispel all diseases and blights from your beauty”. Historians record that Poppaea washed her face with donkey’s milk seven times a day in order to erase wrinkles in the face and preserve the whiteness of her skin. In fact, she used to have baths she could sit in prepared solely with donkey’s milk, for which ‘whole troops of she-asses used to attend her on her journeys’, Pliny the Elder records.

Milk baths throughout history

Other historical donkey’s milk fans include:

  • Valeria Messalina (17 – 48 AD), Emperor Claudius I’s wife, who used to make face masks with slices of bread soaked in donkey’s milk.
  • François I, King of France in 1515, who was advised by a doctor from Constantinople to undergo a donkey milk treatment after he returned from war. He was quoted as saying that the milk bath restored his health.
  • Pauline Bonaparte (1780-1825), Napoleon’s sister, who used to enjoy donkey milk baths. This habit was frowned upon at the time as this milk was very rare and hard to obtain. To enjoy a truly decadent bath, she apparently had servants make a hole in the ceiling above her bath so they could pour the donkey’s milk through it.

BathDonkey’s milk is traced back throughout our historical records to 2,500BC and is found on Egyptian sculptures. During the nineteenth century, merchants used to sell donkey milk at markets throughout major European cities. The rich used to drink donkey’s milk regularly while the poor would keep it for the sick or infirm. Donkey’s milk became widely known as the best substitute for human milk for infants, when breastmilk wasn’t available.

Given its reputation as a great healer, the European elite in the late 1600s used to bathe regularly in donkey’s milk. But they didn’t forget the lower classes. In the eighteenth century, Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, a French soldier and statesman, had his servants sell the milk once he’d finished bathing in it. Abbess Rohan of Marqueste used the milk from her baths to cook soup for the nuns at her convent. There are even known instances of Swiss innkeepers in the nineteenth century reusing the bath milk of their guests to make cheese.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids

So why is milk such a great natural ingredient for skincare? Milk contains lactic acid, which is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA). You may have heard about AHAs. They have been part of an ongoing craze of the skincare industry for several years. They are either sourced from natural ingredients such as milk or they are synthesised in a laboratory. AHAs penetrate the top layers of the skin to slough off dead skin cells. Exfoliation stimulates the skin and healthy cells are regenerated. Using AHAs in your skincare allows the skin to rejuvenate itself more quickly.

Is it really a good thing to wash your face seven times a day with milk? It takes the body four weeks to go from creating a new skin cell to shedding it as a dead skin cell. Research shows that prolonged use of AHAs actually worsens the signs of ageing over time. So as with all other things, moderation is key.

Make your own luxury bath soak

While we don’t recommend that you take hundreds of lactating donkeys with you on holiday, or drill a hole in the ceiling above your bath tub, milk can be a fun ingredient when crafting your own homemade beauty products.

Cleopatra is said to have added honey to her baths, as well as lavender and rose petals in order to create beautiful fragrances. Some sources even suggest that she scented some of her baths with raspberries and strawberries.

Cleopatra’s Milk & Honey Bath Soak

  • 2 tbsp local honey
  • 100ml organic full fat milk
  • Handful of rose petals (optional)

Gently warm the milk and honey, until the honey dissolves fully into the milk. Do not bring to the boil and then allow the mixture to cool.

Pour the milk and honey soak into the hot bath water and scatter rose petals in the bath. Lie back in the bath, relax and gently rub your skin with a damp washcloth to remove dead skin cells. Rinse your body afterwards.

This recipe is also available in Herb & Hedgerow’s BeautyCraft app – the natural beauty app for iPhone, which provides dozens of recipes for homemade beauty products. Download this beauty app for many more bath soaks and lots of other gorgeous natural beauty recipes!

tagged in Beauty History