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Anti-Aging Through the Ages: The Eternal Quest for Youth

Anti-Aging Through the Ages: The Eternal Quest for Youth

Anti-Aging Through the Ages: The Eternal Quest for Youth

We live in an age of wonder. Scientific advances let us tap into the mythical fountain of youth. Millions have stopped the effects of aging and rediscovered a youthful radiance they haven’t known for years. But no matter how far we progress, the important thing to remember is that advances like this didn’t happen overnight.

To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, if we know more about anti-aging today, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. It’s a goal we’ve worked toward for 2,000 years. If not longer. Some more successfully than others, of course. But this long history of trial and error has brought us to where we are today.

Let’s examine the history and rediscover those who helped us get this far. If you’ve benefitted in the least from modern anti-aging products or technology, you owe some of them a huge debt of gratitude.

Along the way, we’ll also bust a myth or two that still persist about the endless quest for youth and beauty, just to keep things fair and balanced.


Last of the Ptolemaic pharaohs of Egypt and lover to both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, Cleopatra lived from 69–30 BC. Though she perished before the age of forty, she was deeply committed to not showing signs of aging.

To this end, she bathed daily in a tub of fresh donkey milk. To make sure there was enough milk for these baths, she kept a drove of donkeys 700-strong. This would’ve likely employed dozens just to herd the animals, milk them, and transport the milk to the royal bath. Talk about job-creation initiatives.

The crazy thing is—she was onto something.

Donkey milk is rich in alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). Today, the cosmetics industry offers a wide variety of AHA products from face creams to clinical facial peels. They reduce wrinkles, soften fine lines, and improves your skin’s overall look and feel.

They say Cleopatra was a beauty to die for. And now you can tap into that beauty for yourself, too—without having to milk a bunch of donkeys.


Greek physician Galen of Pergamon (129–210) is widely regarded as the ancient world’s most accomplished medical researcher. He did much to improve our understanding of anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, and neurology. And he was a bit of a philosopher, to boot.

Galen also came up with the first ever cold cream. His concoction was a mix of water, olive oil, and beeswax. Attempts to replicate his formula in modern times show that it’s good at loosening dirt, oil, and dead cells from the skin’s surface, making it perhaps the world’s first exfoliant.

Beeswax has long been known for its skin moisturizing properties. To see for yourself, try pretty much anything from the Burt’s Bees skincare line.

Wu Zetian

During the short-lived Zhou Dynasty, Wu Zetian (c. 624–705) was the only woman ever officially recognized as China’s head of state. She lived to the ripe, old age of 83. More than double Cleopatra’s lifespan. This gave her considerably more to worry about in the aging department.

Her solution? A carefully harvested preparation of Chinese motherwort. She called it her “fairy dust” and mixed it with cold water and washed her face with it every morning.

Legend has it she was a real beauty well into her old age. But then again, historical records aren’t well-known for their prosaic descriptions of royalty. In fact, criticizing the beauty of powerful women used to be a sure-fire method of halting the aging process dead in its tracks—if you catch my drift.

Motherwort isn’t used today for any cosmetic purposes. In holistic healing circles, it’s said to calm the heart, relieve anxiety, and help with menstrual cramps.

In his book The English Physician (1652), Nicholas Culpeper said of motherwort:

“There is no better Herb to drive Melancholly Vapors from the Heart, to strengthen it, and make a merry cheerful blith soul.”

So there you have it. If you’re having a 17th century attack of the vapors, motherwort might be for you. If you’re searching for the next great anti-aging ingredient, well, the jury’s still out on it.

Luigi Cornaro

At the age of 40, Luigi Cornaro (c. 1467–1566), an Italian nobleman, found himself worn out and rather ill. His doctors advised he was overdoing it on just about everything. Especially food, drink, and sex. So Cornaro put some strict limitations on himself. He restricted his food intake to 350g a day and wouldn’t drink more than 414 mL of wine.

When people begged him for the secrets of his vitality despite his age, Cornaro spelt it all out in his book The Sure and Certain Method of Attaining a Long and Healthful Life. He was 83 at the time.

Being a nobleman, Cornaro didn’t dwell much on matters of skincare. But his book was remarkable for its time in the way it regarded “old age.” He refused to think of his senior years as a time when one sat quietly waiting for death. Instead, he embraced them. He never let a moment pass without reveling in it.

Ponce de León

A conquistador who came to the New World on Columbus’s second voyage, Ponce de León (1474–1521) is often remembered as the man who went looking for the fountain of youth but found Florida instead. It’s a lovely story, but sadly it’s a myth. No contemporary evidence backs it up.

The most credible theory for the confusion is something called Bahamian love vine. It’s an aphrodisiac in the Bahamas often brewed as a tea. Ponce de León may have had a commercial interest in taking the tea back to Europe. But that’s about it.

Mary, Queen of Scots

In happier days, before her beheading, Mary Stuart (1542–1587) used to bathe in white wine. They believed at the time that wine would fight the signs of aging, keep your skin firm, and improve your complexion.

Was she onto something? Perhaps. There are some strains of acne caused by bacteria like Propionibacterium acnes that alcohol can kill. And while it’s generally considered a bad practice to cleanse your skin with undiluted alcohol, maybe the wine she used had Goldilocks properties. Maybe it was just right for clearing her acne without causing any other problems.

But that’s one big maybe. It’s more likely it was just a huge waste of top-shelf vino.

Countess Báthory

People often cite Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed (1560–1566) as the most extreme case of female vanity in history. But however gruesome her real story is, it’s somewhat comforting to know some of the bits people now accept as truth are embellishments added after the fact—nothing more.

So yes, Báthory was a sadistic Hungarian noble. And yes, with the help of some accomplices, she tortured and killed hundreds of young women before eventually being brought to justice. But no, she didn’t bath in the blood of virgins to help retain her youthful appearance as legend has it.

Although, strangely enough, there is a tie-in with current scientific studies here. Researchers have found that a protein in the blood serum of young mice can radically turn back time for older mice. The implications of this research—still in its early stages—are far-reaching indeed.

If scientists can synthesize the human equivalent of this protein, they may be able to reverse most of the effects what we now call aging. This goes beyond skin deep, although the dermatological benefits look promising, too. If everything works out, they could cure senility and dementia as well.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria

In the late 19th century, the Empress of Austria (1837-1898), or Sisi to her friends, had some rather severe notions about beauty. Even after four children, she never weighed more than 110 lbs. She would fast religiously if she ever came close to that mark.

She showed off her slender form through a process called tight-lacing. At one time, her waistline was down to 16 inches. Even in middle-age, she never surpassed 19 ½ inches.

As you might expect from someone so obsessive, her beauty routine was also quite involved. Brushing her hair alone took three hours. And as she aged, she refused to sit for photographs, preferring instead that people remember the paintings of her youth.

So what was Sisi’s anti-aging regimen? By day, she moisturized with a product called Crème Céleste. It was a combination of spermaceti—made from sperm whales, back before the whaling ban—almond oil, and rosewater.

By night, she coated her face in a mixture of raw veal and crushed strawberries. And to keep this concoction from getting on the bedding, she slept in a custom-fit leather mask. Say what you like about her—this lady was hardcore.


Today, we’re getting closer than ever to slowing the aging process. Thanks to science, all it takes is a well thought out combination of skincare products, anti-aging devices, and lifestyle changes to keep it at bay.

And who knows what’s on the horizon? The world of tomorrow could be beyond anything we can imagine today. But when we finally stop aging in its tracks, the important thing to remember will be it’s been a long time coming.

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