Hair Cleanser Update, or Using Roots to Get Squeaky Clean Hair

Last week I promised to test the face whitener, and two hair cleanser recipes.  It seems that that was a bit too large of an order for me to handle this week, mainly because it was the date for a very long awaited research trip to the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago, IL.   I spent some time taking photos and chatting up the docent in the hopes that months of planning ahead would get me into their research library.  No such luck; you have to be a member of the International College of Surgeons, no exceptions.  However, she was sweet enough to refer me to the Newberry Library and even called ahead for me so I could maximize my research time.  What followed was a day and a half of heaven.  I got to personally handle and take photos of about two dozen period medical texts.

Sadly, this meant that I couldn’t spare much time this week to actually test recipes, since I had the trip, my regular job, and some preparing for a RUM class I’m teaching.  I did however, make and test one of the hair cleanser recipes I had planned.  This one is not from any specific text, but the herb mentioned in it does come up in herbals and in many housekeeping manuals as a way to remove greasy stains.  Professional conservators use this herb as a gentle way to clean museum pieces.  So here is a really simple recipe for hair cleanser.


2cps. distilled water

1 1/2 tbsp of dried soapwort root, Saponaria officialis


Bring the water and herb mixture to a boil and simmer, covered for 20 minutes.  Remove from the heat and allow it to cool.  At this point you may add 2 tsp of your favorite aromatic herb or 2 drops of your favorite essential oil to give your cleanser a pleasant scent.  Ideas include lavendar, rosemary, chamomille, lemon, verbena, peppermint extract, vanilla, etc.  Once the mixture has cooled, you should strain off the herbs and discard.  The somewhat bubbly, amber colored water is your cleanser.  This recipe makes enough for 6-8 shampoos and should keep for about ten days.  I put mine in an empty shampoo bottle to make it easier to use. 

This is going to be a slightly different experience than using modern shampoo.  I like to wet my hair, then pour a bit of this mixture on my roots and work it through to the rest of my hair.  You should notice that your hair feels different, but it won’t be the super sudsy feeling you get with modern shampoo.  I think I used 2-3 ounces of this stuff per shampoo but you may use more if your hair is longer.  I have very modern, short hair.  Once you have worked the cleanser through, rinse it thoroughly.  You shouldn’t need to repeat like you do with modern shampoo. 

So here’s the results.  I was very pleasantly suprised with how well this worked.  It go my slightly oily, color treated hair squeaky clean.  I chose not to add scent to mine, mainly because I liked the cleanser’s natural, fresh mowed hay smell.  It left my hair soft, and not overly dry.  I put my regular styling products in afterwards and it seemed to work just great.  My husband liked the smell of my hair too and he didn’t seem to notice any negative effects either.




Wash That _______ Right Outta Your Hair; A 12th Century Hair Cleanser

After many hours of searching and an unsuccessful attempt to grow my own, I found a nursery that carries the herb I was missing for this recipe.  My debut cosmetic was a type of dry shampoo from this same source, so I thought it might be fun to make the recipe which precedes it since it’s entirely possible they might work in tandem.  Here is the recipe:

After leaving the bath, let her adorn her hair; and first of all let her wash it with a cleanser such as this.  take ashes of burnt vine, the chaff of barley nodes, and licorice wood (so that it may the more brightly shine) and sowbread; boil the chaff and the sowbread in water.  With the chaff and the ash and the sowbread, let a pot having at its base two or three small openings be filled.  Let the water in which the sowbread and the chaff were previously cooked be poured into the pot, so that it is strained by the small openings.  With this cleanser let the woman wash her head.  after the washing, let her leave it to dry by itself, and her hair will be golden and shining.–Trotula, #247, 12th century

When I joined the SCA about 17 years ago, I took a crude form of this to my first camping events.  I had gotten the recipe third hand from an academic article and found that even my crude version worked really well.  So I am going to give this one a try using the actual source.  I am also going to be playing around with an herb called soapwort, which was used and known in period.  I hope to have a good working recipe by RUM, where i am teaching a two hour class based on my work.

Face Whitener; a Recipe Twenty Years in the Making

I wrote my first research paper on medieval cosmetics in May of 1993.  I still have it and am planning on posting it here in the future, just so we can all chuckle and compare the quality of my research.  Anyway, this paper is the beginning of my fascination with early cosmetics.  Back then my major interest was in the white face makeup we often see 16th & 17th century people wearing.  In fact, one of my favorite film moments is the opening sequence of 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons.  This sequence is the detailed production that was getting dressed for the nobility in the 17th century.  This white makeup looked cool to my 15 year old self but there was a major drawback; much of that makeup was composed of white lead, or cerruse.  Lead is of course very dangerous and not recommended as an ingredient.  Folks in the 16th and 17th century knew this too and some even spoke out against its use but there was no FDA to regulate cosmetics plus there were some people who took the “I will sacrifice anything” approach to fashion and did it anyway.  You can find plenty of cases in history which detail the gruesome effects of white lead makeup yourself.

At the time of my initial research paper, I didn’t know there were alternate recipes or that there is a substitute ingredient.  It wasn’t until I found the Trotula that I realized that you might be able to develop something which re-enactors could use safely.  Here is the recipe as written.

On Whitening The Face

For whitening the face, take root of bistort and clean it, and root of cuckoo-pint.  Grind them in a mortar with animal grease and mix them with warm water and strain through a cloth.  And afterward stir well and thus let it sit all night.  And in the morning gently remove the water, pouring in fresh water; water made from honeysuckle as well as from roses is the best thing for this.  You should do this for five days.   This is done to repress the herbs harsh properties lest they cause lesions to the face.*  On the sixth day, having thrown out the water, expose to the sun and let it dry, and afterward take three parts of white lead and one part of camphor, and one dram each of borax and gum arabic.  We dissolve the borax in rose water, rubbing it between the hands.  All these we mix in rose water.  Note that when you wish to whiten the face, take from this mixture, a quantity the size of a bean and mix it with cold water, and rubbing a little between the hands, with both hands we anoint the face, but first we should wash the face with water and soap.  Then we sprinkle the face with cold water, and  we place on it a very delicate cloth; this should be done either in the morning or in the evening.  And note that it lasts three days or four.–Trotula, # 174, 12th century.

*bistort was considered the strongest astringent herb known.  It was credited with the power to repel poisons and plague.  Today it is still one of the strongest astringent herbs available.

I started this redaction last Sunday.  Today it is finally ready to test, so an update will get posted next week.  I found bistort root capsules online and broke open about twenty of them.  Make sure you read the labels when purchasing, you just want bistort; you can remove the gelatin capsules easily at home.  To my powdered bistort root I added three tablespoons of clarified turkey fat which was leftover from my family’s dinner.  I put a few tablespoons of rosewater in the jar and left it as directed.  Every morning before work, I changed the water, alternating between honeysuckle and rose waters.  It has been spread out in a glass dish to dry and it is now time to finish it.  However, I will not be using lead of any kind.  I will be using the much safer and better for you substitute; zinc oxide powder.  Zinc oxide is a common ingredient in modern cosmetics and is a wonderful natural sunblock.  You can but finely powdered, zinc oxide online.

Now that its made, it’s time to test.  At this point I am unsure if it is a foundation, a face mask, or a sunscreen so it’s hard to make a prediction.  However, I should have an answer to the mystery next week.

The Sausfleme Update

I am happy to announce that I am cured of sausfleme (acne).  Using the fifteenth century remedy I posted earlier this week, and only that remedy, my pimple is gone.  As predicted the almond oil helped make the scar disappear, and the vinegar did a fantastic job of drying up the pimple.  I dabbed the vinegar and almond oil on the spot with a cotton swab three to fours times a day and found that it it made a major improvement very quickly.  My spot was gone by Friday morning,.  In your face Clearisil.

A Remedy for Sausfleme (Acne), 15th Century

I came across this over the weekend and woke up with a pimple this morning, so it seemed like a great time to try it.

Another for the sausfleme (acne), to do it away from the face.  Take strong vinegar made from white wine, and annoint three times or for where the sore is.  And it will break out as (if) it were leprosy; and after it is out, annoint it as aforesaid six days, that the filth may run out.  But look (take care) as oft as thou annointest the face, to annoint the head and the noddle (nape) behind with hot water.  And when it hath run, take and break almonds, and make oil of them, , and annoint it therewith, and it will heal him up anon, so (long) as the sick come not in the wind all the time that is cure being done, till he be whole.–MS 136, Medical Society of London, fifteenth century

I feel pretty confident that this one will work well.  Before leaving the house, I dabbed a bit of white wine vinegar on my pimple, followed by a dab of almond oil.  I’m theorizing that vinegar, being a natural antiseptic and astringent, will take care of the nasty part of the blemish while the almond oil, being a wonderfully light and non-clogging moisturizer, will take care of any possible scars.  I should know by the weekend how well this works, given that i will be dabbing myself with vinegar and almond oil three to four times a day.  Be careful applying this near your eyes; it stings a bit.

Making Garb Smell like the Old Days–Adventures in Incense

Last week I translated a section of Gli Ornamente Delle Donna which details the ways to freshen rooms and clothes.  I bravely set out to test a recipe only to discover that I had it wrong.  This is not a recipe for a liquid perfume, but a recipe to make your own incense.  The Venetians imported small brass incense burners from the East for centuries, so it makes sense to find a few recipes for things to put in them.  The recipe i tried is for a slow burning, low smoke dry incense.  Here is the edited version of last week’s translation.

In some small brass vase (i.e., an incense burner) add musk, a little civet, garofoli, camphor, aloe wood, & styrax.  When this mixture is burned it shall release vapors and a wonderful smell, which bears conserving (keeping) locked up (in a clothes press) with diligence, as you want to give perfume to drapes (or rooms, hangings, clothes, etc.)But in addition to the things mentioned gratefully by me I shall reveal another miraculous secret, which contains a rare way of composing water, in addition, to many other perfumigates.

Now that I fixed the translation, here is what I did;  In a fireproof dish (look on the V&A museum website for great period examples)  I put a layer of sand.  Next, i put it aside while I mixed the incense.  I took one tsp of camphor, one tsp. of dry benzoin styrax, one tsp of galgangal powder, and two drops of musk oil in a mortar & pestle and pulverized them.  When it was thoroughly mixed, I took one piece of aloewood (or one coil) and lit it.  I strongly advise using tweezers to hold it so you don”t burn yourself.  Once you aloewood is ignited, you will need to fan out the flame and place the aloewood in the incense container on top of the sand.  Finally, sprinkle the loose incense on top of your aloewood.  Because the translation seems to indicate the recipe is for perfuming clothes, I put the cover on my incense burner and carefully placed it near some of my hanging garb in a small inclosed space.  I was trying to simulate the practice of storing clothes in a clothes press like the recipe suggests.

This morning I opened up the room and was greeted by a pleasant odor that was not terribly overpowering.  I had hung one linen dress, one velvet dress and one silk dress in the room and found that the scent clung to the linen and silk gown better than the velvet.  The incense did seem to do a wonderful job when it came to scenting the room overall.  Most commercially made incense I have tried seems to give the room a very short-lived fragrance, but the hand-made loose incense does a great job of scenting a room for hours.

If you want to recreate this at home to scent your own garb, I strongly recommend doing a little background reading or youTube watching to make sure you understand how to burn loose incense if you have never done so before.  Please, please, please take every safety precaution possible–this is an open flame after all.   It would be tragic is someone were hurt or injured simply for the sake of 16th century smelling garb.

How to Scent Clothes and Rooms, Gli Ornamente Delle Donna, 1574

More translating from Gli Ornamente Delle Donna complete.  To give myself a break from the body odor issue, I decided to tackle the section on “Scented Waters” in Folio 5.  The term is somewhat misleading, as waters are not just perfumes to dab behind the ears.  I am finding that the term “waters” is generic and can mean things like astringents, perfumes, hair conditioners, and in this case potpourri and incense.  I have updated the translation section of this blog, but will also repost the segment here.

Waters & Spirits Odorous, Folio 5

A dram & a half of finely chopped moss might be used as a sponge to absorb two pounds of rose water into a glass jar.  This liquid when stored in glass jar well covered, is convenient for any ornamented garment . But it is no less lovely & grateful to the  senses as on the person , as it is used on clothes .

In a small glass vessel put ten or twenty grains of musk, & a little civet , & Amber ,& after this a pint of rosewater & Put on the fire , heating the water so it is well covered and not letting it become cold all day.  You may use this perfumigate to scent all manner of clothes in your wardtobe, taking care to keep it tightly closed until the cloth is finely scented..

Put some rosewater & musk in some small brass vase & add a little civet , (garam?) & styrax .  Mix and heat with the fire , and the vapors will be released to make a wonderful smell , to which may be added cloths which can be stored in a tight vessel so you may have them to scent clothes.  But I have also heard of another method for making scented waters in this way..

Take four parts rosewater & add to it an ounce of dried styrax, one of (gagofoli?) , one of camphor ,  twenty grains of musk, divide equally , afterwards in glass jars covered tightly  with paper in which ten holes punched been punched in with a large needle.  You can use this to sweeten a room or clothing for five days, if it is kept closed. From these medicines you can know the value of this sweet-smelling water.


So it looks like we will be making various recipes designed to make our clothes smell good.  I’m going to start with the last one which I think goes something like this:  Take one ounce of dried benzoin styrax, one of camphor, twenty grains of musk, and dissolve in four ounces of rosewater.   Place this in a glass jar which has been tightly covered with paper.  You will then punch ten holes in it with a large needle.  This will make a perfumigate (i.e., a very strong overpowering scent).  This one was designed to fumigate a room or personal items after an illness I suspect.  Camphor is a pretty common herb for that purpose and according to humor theory of medicine, bad smell=bad air=illness. 

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