Everything You Want To Know About the History of Facial Cleansers

Did you know that cleansing your face is one of the oldest rituals practiced by humans? The idea of cleansing dates back to the origin of the human race—only the ritual would have been performed in different ways. In earliest times, cleansing was done by using a piece of bone or stone to scrape the skin. Later civilizations used materials of plant origin along with water for cleansing. Let’s take a closer look at how the first…and most important…step in your daily skincare routine has evolved over time.

Ancient Times

Written recipes for soap date back nearly 5,000 years, with variations beginning from Mesopotamia, Egypt, ancient Greece and Rome. The very first soap substance may have actually started as a by-product of a chemical reaction from roasting meat over an open flame. This slippery substance or “fats boiled with ashes” was excellent at lifting dirt off the skin. Records show ancient Egyptians bathed regularly. The Ebers papyrus, a medical document from about 1500 BC describes combining animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to form a soap-like material used for treating skin diseases, as well as for washing. 

Records also show soap got its name from an ancient Roman legend about Mount Sapo. Rain would wash down the mountain mixing with animal fat and ashes, resulting in a clay mixture found to make cleaning easier. 

By the 7th century, soap-making was an established art in Italy, Spain and France. These countries were early centers of soap manufacturing due to their ready supply of source ingredients, such as oil from olive trees. But after the fall of Rome in 467 AD, bathing habits declined in much of Europe leading to unsanitary conditions in the Middle Ages, which led to several illnesses.

What Came Next

Commercial soap making began in the American colonies in 1600 and by the 17th century cleanliness and bathing became more of the norm for wealthier people (thanks to soap being heavily taxed well into the 19th century). When the tax was removed, soap became available to most people, and cleanliness standards across societies improved. By 1850, the process for making soap was improved and quickly became one of America’s fastest-growing industries. 

The chemistry of soap manufacturing stayed essentially the same until 1916. During World War I and again in World War II, there was a shortage of animal and vegetable fats and oils that were used in making soap. Chemists had to use other raw materials instead, which were “synthesized” into chemicals with similar properties.  These are what are known today as “detergents.”


Cleansers Today

By the 1990’s, the first modern liquid cleansers were introduced as an alternative to bar soap for face and body. These days, they are available in hundreds of scents and colors with a wide array of formulations that sit side by side on store shelves. Many include synthetically derived ingredients, while others are formulated using plant-based ingredients

Now, cleansers are one of the biggest skincare categories in the US and have become one of the most important steps in skincare routines. In fact, there is almost a cult-like mania around the search for the right cleanser and cleansing rituals. No longer are people just “slapping liquids on their face,” but instead looking at cleansers as twice daily instruments of intention and even meditation—stress busting mechanisms that are also setting their skin up for success. So how have cleansers evolved?

  • Reduced Irritation: Old-school suds had a high pH level, so they’d dissolve too much oil, removing protective natural lipids along with sebum, thus dehydrating the skin and irritating it.
  • Soap-Free: Most modern day cleansers are sophisticated and have become soap-free, instead including mild detergents/synthetic detergents with lower pH levels.
  • “Squeaky clean” is No Longer the Goal: Instead it’s about maintaining the integrity of the skin, with more and more cleansers giving back to skin by depositing fatty acids, oils, triglycerides, ceramides.