Body creams have been used from pre-history until the present day to keep skin soft and youthful. Many of the earliest ingredients, such as olive oil and animal fat, came from plants and animals while later formulas took advantage of mineral oil and petroleum jelly created in the production of gasoline. Today, many creams combine the use of ancient materials with high-tech additions perfected by modern science.


Humans have been using moisturizer since at least the Mesolithic era 10,000 years ago, when people smeared animal fat on themselves to keep skin supple. Many Native American tribes also used animal fats from beasts they had slaughtered to help keep warm and as decoration. Women in Latin America have used avocado to moisturize since pre-Columbian times, while people in Brazil and Africa have long used palm oil.

Ancient Civilizations

Sumerians (members of the world's first known civilization, in present-day Iraq) created salves from pulverized plant, animal or mineral material, which they combined with wine and tree oils before applying to the body. Ancient Egyptian parchments also describe the use of body cream and moisturizers have been found among items in Egyptian burial sites. Cleopatra was known for applying olive oil or sesame oil to her skin, while other Egyptians applied an ointment made of oil of ben and resinous myrrh (later versions of the same ointment included oil of bitter almonds, olive oil, cardamom, honey and wine. The Bible also mentions creating lotions from olive oil and spices. One Byzantine tract recommends making a lotion by mixing aloe, myrrh and egg yolks, letting it sit, then washing it off with cooling wine and egg yolks mixed with hot rose oil.

Greeks and Romans

Olive oil also was popular as a moisturizer among the ancient Greeks. Homer describers Hera anointing herself with scented olive oil before her seduction of Zeus. In fact, the ancient Olympics were conducted by men greased in olive oil. Some Greek women used an anti-aging routine that involved spreading milk and bread on their faces at night, while Hippocrates said using honey on the face would guarantee "a fresh and jovial look." The celebrated Roman physician Galen was the first to develop cold cream (named for how it made your skin feel), which he created around 200 BC by melting beeswax into rose oil and then adding water.

The Birth of the Modern Cream

After centuries of homemade preparations, manufactured body creams became widespread in the 1800s. Popular new ingredients included petroleum jelly, which was used all over the body beginning in the late 1800s, as well as mineral oil. Techniques for collecting lanolin, a waxy substance produced by sheep and other wooly creatures, were also perfected in the late 1800s, and the substance become another common addition to creams.

Around 1900, some manufactured products broke out of their local markets and attained nationwide distribution. One of the first, was Hinds' Honey and Almond Cream, formulated in 1872 by a drugstore owner in Portland, Maine. However, the development of body creams really took off in the 1930s, when the invention of television led to a boom in advertisers plying their wares.

Body Cream Today

In the last 50 years, hundreds of thousands of types of body cream have been developed. Today, about 80 percent of women in the United States say they use a hand or body lotion regularly.

Many creams are moving away from the use of animal-based materials and on toward vegetable ingredients, such as coconut oil and palm kernel oil. However, the use of petroleum jelly remains popular, as does the use of mineral oil and silicon oils. Many formulas also now use retinol, alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids, vitamins and minerals to help creams lighten, reduce wrinkles, improve tone and purport to perform a variety of other tasks in addition to just moisturizing.

About the Author

Bess Lovejoy

Bess Lovejoy is a writer and researcher in Seattle, Washington. She was an editor on the Schott's Almanac series of reference books from 2005 until 2010. She has also written journalism for the "Stranger," "Arcade," the "Tyee," "KGBBarLit" and other publications. She graduated from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2003, and has been writing ever since.