From bird poop facials to crocodile dung baths, it’s safe to say that may ancient beauty rituals were not only pretty iffy in the safety department, but also downright disgusting.
Want to watch this post instead of read it?
Evidence of cosmetic use dates back to at least 4000BCE, and we’ve made a lot of progress in both ingredients and formulations in the intervening 6000+ years. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to hear that animal bowel movements are far less popular than they once were… though they’re not entirely off the menu 😬.
In this post, I’m fusing my love of history with my love of skincare, cosmetics, and formulation. We’re going to look at six of the grossest, weirdest ingredients found in cosmetics—past & present. If you follow skincare trends and read ingredient lists, you’ll know you can still find some pretty strange stuff in modern skincare products… but I don’t think any of it holds a whale-wax candle to some of the ingredients used in skincare in the past 🤢
Ambergris has been prized in perfumery for its rich, warm scent and fixative abilities for centuries. The name ‘ambergris’ sounds rather lovely, too, no? In any event, it sounds a whole lot nicer than “whale vomit”, which is a simplistic (but not entirely inaccurate) way to describe it 😆
Originating from the digestive systems of sperm whales, it is thought to be made by sperm whales as a way to protect their innards from the chunkier bits of their dinner—things like sharp squid beaks and pointy teeth.
If you’re looking for analogies, I guess it’s a bit like pearls (made to protect from irritants) and honey (which could be called bee barf if you really want to lean into the gross theme). Once the whale has, err, ejected, the ambergris, it can bob about in the ocean for years, losing its “marine, fecal odor” (source) before washing ashore. Historically, finding a chunk of ambergris while beachcombing was like winning the lottery!
Fossilised evidence of ambergris dates back 1.75 million years, with the first evidence of its use in fine perfumery said to have been in the 10th century by the Arabs in Spain. Historically, it was also used in food and drink, with Louis XV of France rumoured to have spiced his favourite dishes with ambergris.
I asked Nathan and Cecile, the folks behind Stock Fragrance, for some professional thoughts and input on ambergris. Cecile is an expert perfumer who has attended the invitation-only Givaudan-Roure Perfumery School in Grasse and created fragrances for some of the most famous brands out there!
Natural Ambergris is still widely available for perfumery as there is no contact with the whale for extraction, so the material is considered cruelty-free 🙂 Think of Ambergris as a ‘fragrant pearl’ formed in the intestine of a sperm whale by something irritating that cannot be digested, like a squid beak! The whale’s intestine creates a lining around the object and eventually, discharges the Ambergris into the ocean. Then there’s the fun part of finding it. If you’re not willing to wait for some to randomly wash up on a beach, there are specially trained dogs that stand on the shore and sniff out the Ambergris that is still in the water, quite a feat considering that Ambergris typically floats 5-10 feet UNDER the surface of the water (not on top). Once the dogs locate the Ambergris a human does the rest to find and collect it. Crazy (and gross?) but true. But the smell is truly complex and evolves/mellows over time – like umami for the nose. Ambergris can be used to make tinctures of varying intensity (and cost). We have a few pieces of natural Ambergris (for show and tell), and you can even see a squid beak in one of them!
Side note: I met Nathan at the 2023 HSCG conference, where sniffed every single one of Stock Fragrances’ gorgeous fragrances and fell in love with quite a few of them (I think Cuba is my favourite; it is so warm and complex and utterly beguiling). I’m so thrilled they agreed to contribute to this post with professional insights and photos! If you’d like to try out some of their products you can save 20% on your first order by clicking here (it’s a referral link, so I’ll also earn a small bonus if you purchase—at no additional cost to you).
Unsurprisingly, this ingredient is disappearing from the world market due to cost, over-hunting of the sperm whale, and the fact that it’s illegal (or exists in a bit of a legal grey area) in several countries. One of my favourite resinoids—labdanum—is a popular alternative, along with synthetic and essential-oil derived options.
A K-Beauty Fave
Ingredient number two is one I’ve actually used; it dates back to ancient Greece (apparently the ancient physician Hippocrates was a fan), and is surprisingly popular today in K-beauty products.
If you’re a skincare aficionado, you’ve probably figured out that we’re talking about snail slime, or snail mucin. This slippery substance is produced by snails to lubricate and protect their underbellies while sliding over rough surfaces, and it is packed with beneficial compounds like soothing allantoin and brightening glycolic acid. Its skincare benefits were noticed (again) by Chilean snail breeders in the 1980s, and it has since become a feature of many Korean skincare products.
I tried the COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence a few years ago after reading lots of glowing recommendations on Reddit’s Skincare Addiction subreddit citing its hydrating, anti-aging, and skin-renewing properties. While I didn’t notice any magical changes to my skin, it certainly has many fans with thousands of positive review.
I suspect this is the most famous ingredient on this list; it’s one I’ve used for years. It’s all-natural and has been used for centuries, but it’s definitely not vegan-friendly and has pretty icky origins.
Carmine first used as early as 700 BC by South American civilizations and Aztecs to dye textiles, and it is made from none other than crushed female cochineal insects. Boiled in ammonia or a sodium carbonate solution, the solution is then mixed with alum to create a vibrant red dye.
Rich pink-red carmine has been used to make everything from paints (it was favoured among renowned painters such as Vincent Van Gogh), inks, dyes, and—of course—colour cosmetics.
I’ve used it myself to create some beautiful (but definitely not vegan-friendly) lipsticks, glosses, and stains. It doesn’t take much to pack a powerfully colourful punch; just 1% will make a product really pink.
Makeup artist Erin Parsons made a whole video about making her very own carmine, and used the lipstick base from my book (!!) to turn it into a totally DIY lipstick; you can watch that here. It’s really neat to see the full making process!
As beautiful as carmine is, the rising popularity of vegan products means that it is used less and less in favour of synthetic dyes like D&C Red 6, Red 7, and Red 30.
Want to watch this post instead of read it?
I think our fourth contender is the grossest one on this list.
Imagine someone said, “You know what would be great in perfume, face powders, and creams? Beaver butt juice!” It’s undeniably icky, but that’s essentially what happened with castoreum. This yellowish secretion is made in sacs near the famously slappy tail of Canada’s favourite furry rodent. Beavers use this secretion—mixed with urine—to mark their territory.
Historically, castoreum has been used as a fragrance ingredient for perfume and cosmetics, and even a food flavouring (in desserts—apparently it accentuates vanilla and raspberry very nicely) thanks to its warm, leathery, fruity scent scent. The most recognizable constituent of castoreum is probably benzyl alcohol (it is found in preservatives like Geogard® ECT and essential oils like ylang ylang), but it also contains acetophenone, benzoic acid, and ammonia (source).
When used in perfumery, the castor sacks are typically aged for two or more years to mellow, and I do think that makes this already very gross thing even worse. The aged sacs would then be turned into usable formats like alcohol tinctures.
As you’re scanning ingredient lists looking for castoreum, don’t be frightened by the similar sounding castor oil; castor oil is pressed from the castor bean, and while it has its own icky bits in the history books, it’s completely vegan and a safe cosmetic ingredient.
These days, you’re much more likely to encounter castoreum alternatives than the real thing; beaver-free options span everything from blends of essential oils and essential oil constituents to synthetic replicas. This fascinating article from 1997 includes several formulations for castoreum alternatives (plus more fascinating history and details!).
From Nathan & Cecile at Stock Fragrance:
This ingredient is our only synthetic nominee, and it’s more of a “ha-ha gross” than a “I wish I didn’t know that, get it away from me” gross. Honestly, there’s nothing really icky about it on its own, but it does keep some rather smelly (and bathroom-humour amusing) company.
It can also be found in the pharmacy as a treatment for excess gas—aka farting and burping. The same properties that help it reduce foam (and the soaping effect) in cosmetics help reduce gas bubbles in our guts, reducing gassiness and bloating.
This fibre-loving vegetarian highly recommends having some simethicone capsules (aka Gas-X) on hand 😅
That’s not Pasta
Our final gross ingredient was a new one to me; I first came upon it in an almost 150-year-old cold cream recipe:
“Take 2 ½ ounces of sweet oil of almonds, 3 drachms of white wax, and the same of spermaceti, 2 ½ ounces of rose water, 1 drachm of oil of bergamot, and 15 drops each of oil of lavender and otto of roses.”
A bit of googling revealed that spermaceti is a wax-like substance harvested from the head cavity of the sperm whale, and unlike ambergris, we weren’t polite enough to wait until the whale was done with it. You’ve probably heard about whale oil being used in lamps; spermaceti was a solid whale oil product that was used in candles, ointments, and skincare products.
Due to conservation efforts and the 1987 international ban on whaling, spermaceti has been replaced with synthetic and plant-based alternatives, like palm-derived cetyl palmitate (the primary constituent of spermaceti).
And that’s a wrap!
While some of these ingredients might (🙈) sound gross by today’s standards, they serve as a testament to humanity’s never-ending quest for beauty; no matter how slimy, crunchy, or waxy the path may be.