Tudors, Personal Hygiene And Chemistry

There are now endless shampoos, deodorants, perfumes and other personal hygiene products, but in Tudor times, people had to turn to nature to find products to use.

They could not explain, from a chemical point of view, how the products they used worked, but the fundamentals for soap, perfume and manufacture of other products still apply today. The processes may be have been developed and improved, but the chemical reactions are the same.

Despite the difficulty to prepare the products needed, they had an awareness of cleanliness and tried to keep clean. It’s sometimes assumed that personal hygiene was not highly regarded, but multiple soap and hand-wash recipes indicate otherwise.

Soap

The lower classes used rough soap simply made from boiling animal fat (mostly triglycerides) and lye (sodium hydroxide, NaOH), but the wealthier families could afford scented soap for their daily wash. It's believed this high quality soap was made with olive oil and fragrance oils extracted from flowers and spices. Although today soap is manufactured industrially, the same saponification reactions apply.

Perfume

In addition to soap, the higher classes could also buy perfume. This was a real luxury, as ingredients used in the manufacture of these products had to be imported, and became more associated with showing one’s status than using it for their pleasant odour. This was achieved by a simple distillation of spirits (containing alcohol) and flowers or other ingredients.

Make-Up And Cosmetics

Make-up was very popular in Tudor times, mostly to hide common chickenpox scars in the face. A pale complexion was particularly sought after, to indicate a wealthier status. Working class women often spent all day in the fields and quickly developed a suntan. Unfortunately, their choice of powdered white lead mixed with vinegar resulted in a poisonous make-up. Richer families could also afford creams made from scented beeswax to soften the skin, as well as basic lipstick and other cosmetic products.

Toothpaste

While Tudors managed to find a way to produce soap and perfume, their ideas about brushing their teeth were a little off. Unfortunately, any teeth conditions, such as plaque and cavities, were not associated with excessive consumption of sugar and Tudors even used honey to flavour their toothpaste. In this instance, it’s more likely that the lower class had better teeth, as sugary items were expensive to buy. These classes would rinse their mouths with vinegar mixed with orange juice, which was actually quite effective as acetic acid (in vinegar) and citric acid (in orange juice) lowered the mouth pH to prevent bacterial infections and dissolved teeth stains.