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These researchers are unlocking Renaissance beauty secrets

Art historian Erin Griffey is a bit of a beauty maven. “I’m one of those people who reads the backs of beauty products,” she says. That’s why, while working on a book about beauty culture in mesin destilasi Renaissance Europe, Griffey experienced déjà vu.

She noticed that many ingredients in beauty recipes from the 16th to 18th centuries — compiled from books, cosmetic recipe collections, medical texts, health regimen manuscripts, herbals and pharmacopeias — also appear on modern beauty packaging. For instance, rosewater is used in modern skin-hydrating mists and sulfur is found in some over-the-counter acne creams.

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Such similarities are clues to what Renaissance-era people used the products for and how the products worked. But they are not the whole story. That’s because the ancient recipes often also list bizarre or even dangerous ingredients, from bile acids and calves’ hooves to lead and the poisonous bryony plant. To get a better understanding, Griffey wanted to re-create the recipes. So she turned to her colleagues at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Thus the Beautiful Chemistry Project was born.

The team started with what Griffey calls “sticky recipes” because they’re found in many sources throughout the Renaissance period: rosemary flowers in white wine, myrrh powder with egg white, and the velvety covering of newly grown deer antlers with bean flour.

The recipes tend to be vague and varied. So chemist Michel Nieuwoudt and her team experiment with the measurements and procedures while Griffey searches various sources for more clues to ingredient types and ratios.

“We knew we could not re-create it exactly as is,” Griffey says of the recipe for rosemary flowers in white wine. “We do not have access to the rosemary plants that grew 500 years ago or the wines and whatever their chemical makeup was.” But this legwork “enabled us to get closer to an approximation.”

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