Men’s skincare, like all aspects of male grooming, has a long and complicated history. In the ancient Egyptian world, men practiced a beauty and health regimen that included the application of skin conditioners and moisturizers. Cosmetics, especially those intended to protect, shadow, and enhance the appearance of the eyes, were also routinely used in life and death among the Egyptians. Additionally, they applied ingenious concoctions made from ingredients like olive oil, Cyprus bark, and oil of fenugreek to their faces in an effort to eliminate freckles and wrinkles. In the Classical Greek and Roman worlds, men paid special attention to the appearance of the skin and the face. In Roman baths, they received facial treatments with ointments that were intended to beautify and replenish. The importance of this particular ritual of personal hygiene was reflected in the fact that these ointments were applied by a special masseuse, known as an aliptes, in a purpose-specific room referred to as an unctuarium. Roman men also used a chalk-based powder to render their complexions more youthful and frequently dyed their hair to achieve a fairer look.
In other regions, men and women alike used a broad range of facial treatments that were intended to improve the appearance of the skin. In the Islamic world, from the 9th through the 12th centuries, physicians and alchemists used their specialized forms of knowledge to devise skin care treatments. These included skin cleansers made of almond oil and facial masks composed of rice, grains, seashells, lime, egg, and other ingredients that removed layers of dead skin from the face. Despite a tendency on the part of the medieval Christian church in Europe to condemn the practices of excessive adornment and the use of cosmetics, evidence suggests that men persisted in their efforts to beautify their faces. During the Renaissance, the physician and alchemist Theophrastus Paracelsus (1493–1541) drew on his knowledge of botany and plants from the New World to prescribe the use of artichokes and aloe to treat baldness and the application of wine vinegar to eliminate wrinkles. It was within this period, as well, that Europeans began to be exposed to other forms of skin care and adornment, such as facial tattoos, found in places like the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.
Men in the American colonies and the early United States continued to care for the skin and treat problems such as acne with a broad array of concoctions and home remedies, though the impact of Puritanism in the New England colonies and the exigencies of colonial life often precluded excessive vanity or indulgence. Still, some American men in the 18th century affected the powdered and primped appearance of the European macaroni, who was known for his excess, indulgence, and the extravagant adornment of his person. By the mid 19th century, men were seeking remedies for skin ailments, as well as a host of internal or neurological problems, in the form of unregulated patent or quack medicines. Hundreds of remedies, frequently alcoholor opium-based, were advertised in the pages of American magazines and newspapers throughout the 19th century. Concoctions like Acker’s Blood Elixir, advertised in a Bloomington, Illinois, newspaper in 1888, for example, promised to cure ulcers, eruptions, and syphilitic poisoning, the aesthetic effects of which could be quite devastating. A similar potion, advertised in a Montrose, Pennsylvania, publication in 1880, extolled the pimple-eliminating virtues of vegetable balm. Whatever the intended use, the marketability of cure-all elixirs appealed, in part, to the male and female desire to beautify the skin and create as pleasing an appearance as possible to secure success in business, courtship, and marriage. Some men, in seeking a competitive edge in life during this period, also sought out the services of beauticians like Madame Velaro in New York City to have their wrinkles treated and their mustaches tinted.
Men’s skin care was most affected by one late-19th-century development: the introduction of the safety razor and the emergence of self-shaving in the 1880s. Accompanying this important technological change was the emergence of a host of new products meant to ease shaving and cleanse, nourish, and beautify the skin. By the 1920s, producers were offering a range of new products, in often highly masculinized advertisements in magazines like Fortune (f. 1930) and Esquire (f. 1933), which promised to improve facial appearance. New lines of lotions, powders, and moisturizers like Florian were directed specifically at the male beauty consumer. In the 1930s, market research firms were beginning to study white-collar workers to determine how frequently they used products like aftershave lotions and moisturizers. In one survey from 1936, they discovered that one in two middle-class New York men was using at least some sort of beauty product. Some of these men relied on skin care services offered by their barbers, and some used female-oriented products like Ponds to treat acne or Covermark to hide embarrassing blemishes. A few even took to visiting the beauty culture studios of industry entrepreneurs Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, both of whom entered the lucrative beauty business in the 1910s. This embrace of new skin care regimens was not entirely unproblematic for those who were concerned about the gendered implications of this form of consumption. Some heterosexual men worried that behaviors of this sort might lump them in with what were viewed as the painted fairies of New York (and other cities), who used makeup as a way to visually express their sexual identity.
During World War II, American men in the armed forces were expected, as a component of military discipline, to keep their hair neat and short, their faces clean shaven, and their clothes and shoes pressed and polished. With this new emphasis on fastidious male grooming came a dramatic expansion of the men’s shaving and skin care industry. In the 1950s and 1960s, companies concerned primarily with female consumers began to develop lines of aftershave products and skins lotions that were marketed to men as ways to achieve the desired aesthetic effect of cleanliness. This development really took off as companies like Clinique and Lancôme began to market products, previously confined exclusively to a female audience, to male consumers in magazines like Gentlemen’s Quarterly (GQ) (f. 1957) and Esquire. By the mid 1980s, Clinique was selling products like Scruffing Lotion to a new, large market of men who were increasingly comfortable requesting male beauty aids in department stores and specialty shops.
Since the 1990s, features on men’s skin care have been fairly standard fare in a broad range of magazines directed at different segments of the male market, including youthful heterosexuals (Maxim, f. 1995) and gay men (Out, f. 1992). Discussions of dry skin, acne, shaving techniques, tanning, and aging not only punctuate the pages of these popular magazines but, since the late 1990s, have also appeared on countless Web sites and online publications. One such Web site, www.menessentials.com, bills itself as “the Internet’s first male grooming site and the premiere online destination for men of style and substance” and offers products for sale and a broad range of advice on skin and hair care, as well as shaving. In some instances, discussions of men’s skincare have taken on a critical edge or brought up potentially controversial topics like the use of cosmetics. In a 2007 article that appeared in the online publication Salon.com, for example, the virtues, as well as potential pitfalls, of guyliner and mancake were discussed in relation to Zac Efron, the teen-idol star of High School Musical. While controversies about the excesses of male vanity (especially as they relate to the frequently discussed and much-maligned metrosexual) continue, it would appear that the current obsession with male skin care is here to stay.