Men’s Skincare: From Ancient History to Modern Trend

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Men’s skincare has seen a meteoric rise in the past few years as more and more men wake up to the benefits of looking after their skin. In the UK alone, the market for male skincare grew by almost £100 million from 2015 to 2017 and the trend looks set to continue.

Despite what these figures might suggest, skincare for men is far from a modern phenomenon. But the history of men’s use of cosmetics and skincare is inextricably linked to ideas about masculinity, femininity, hygiene, and appearance.

The History of Men’s Skincare

For much of the 20th century, skincare was associated mainly with women. Linked with luxury, softness, and pampering, most people put skincare firmly in the feminine domain.

But it wasn’t always this way. There’s plenty of historical evidence to show that the link between skincare and femininity is a relatively recent one.

In ancient Egypt, for example, both men and women used cleansing creams made of oil and powdered lime, scented with perfume made from resins, herbs, spices, and flowers. They also moisturised their bodies with scented oil. Everyone wore makeup and perfume, regardless of age or gender.

Men’s skincare has just as long a history in India. Evidence suggests that men, as well as women, used a full range of cosmetics and skincare products, including face masks, facial oils, perfumed bath powders, and even lip salve.

Meanwhile, in China, archaeologists found a bronze jar of moisturiser dating to around 700 BC. The moisturiser was found in the tomb of a wealthy nobleman, suggesting that men in China at this time were also taking good care of their skin.

Roman Baths, Bath, England

Moving into Europe, the Romans were no strangers to skincare. Men and women both visited the public baths regularly, where they would use water and steam to cleanse their bodies and faces. Scented oils played an important role here too, used to remove dirt and leave the skin soft and clean.

Fast forward to Victorian times, and men’s attitudes to skincare were changing. While men in England earlier in the 19th century had been expected to shave regularly, the Victorians favoured big, bushy beards that emphasised their masculinity.

Victorian men still used some skincare, they just labelled it differently. With a focus on hygiene and beard care, facial soaps and beard oils were the main skincare products used by Victorian men. For those who did choose to shave all or part of their face, the emphasis was on shaving soaps and soothing aftershaves.

This insistence on masculinity and the separation between men’s products (soap, shaving creams, and beard oils) and women’s products (moisturiser, lotion, makeup) continued into the 20th century, even as society began to navigate new ideas about gender.

Women’s rights movements might have been gaining traction, but most men still steered well clear of anything that might be seen as feminine. Despite that, new skincare products marketed at men continued to appear.

Artefacts recovered from World War II battlefields include plenty of shaving creams, which now came in tubes instead of as soap bars. And Hollywood glamour had a role to play too. The stars of the silver screen were clean-shaven and well-groomed. Looking sharp was the order of the day and men were expected to spend time on their appearance, including their skin.

By the 1990s and early 2000s, skincare brands began to realise that they were missing out on a potential market. More and more companies introduced product lines aimed specifically at men. And new skincare brands appeared that made cleansers, creams, and lotions exclusively for men.

“The stars of the silver screen were clean-shaven and well-groomed.” (Image: Paul Newman, 1954)

As our understanding of gender roles became more flexible, many of the behaviours that were traditionally labelled ‘feminine’ were embraced by men too. Most people over thirty will remember the splash made by David Beckham when he appeared in a sarong in 1998. Something that few of us would bat an eyelid at now made headlines in the late 90s, but it also confirmed that a new way of being masculine had arrived.

The metrosexual movement allowed straight cis men to proudly care about their appearance, including their skin. Men’s products were still seen as separate from women’s, but at least men now had the opportunity to invest in their skincare.

Men’s Attitudes to Skincare Today

Say what you like about social media, it provides opportunities for people to connect like nothing else. And it has done a lot to challenge traditional attitudes that say skincare is a women’s game.

Apart from anything else, seeing the wide range of ways there are to express masculinity has helped many of us move away from outdated stereotypes.

Plus, skincare science has come a long way in the past decade, and there’s a growing understanding of the need to take proper care of our skin.

According to data experts, Statista, an estimated 6.1 million men in the UK used moisturising face creams or lotions in 2019. Meanwhile, 59% of men surveyed in 2016 said that men are paying more attention to their skin and hair.

However, for some people, old habits die hard. While younger generations have been open to embracing skincare, older men might be harder to convince. When interviewed as part of a study in 2014, men aged 42-70 in America and Finland still labelled skincare as “women’s stuff”.

Fortunately, younger men usually have a more flexible understanding of gender. The link between skincare and femininity is losing its grip and not only in the UK. In fact, the biggest global spenders on skincare aren’t women at all, but men in South Korea, according to market research group, Euromonitor. Both skincare and makeup are popular with men in the region, especially younger men who live in cities.

And skincare doesn’t just mean washing your face and slapping on some moisturiser either – men in South Korea also embrace serums, BB creams, and facial masks. Seeing skincare as an option for anyone, regardless of gender, means we can all purchase products that help our skin’s health and appearance.

As the popularity of K-pop and Korean culture spreads across the globe, it is helping to normalise the use of skincare (and makeup) for everyone, no matter their gender expression.

Why Do Men Use Skincare?

Despite changes in how men think about skincare, they tend not to discuss it with one another, as researcher Angela Byrne discovered when she interviewed groups of men aged 18-20 about their attitudes to skincare.

So, if skincare remains a slight mystery to many men, why do some choose to use it?

Research published by Statista in 2016 suggests that there are two main reasons that men opt for a skincare regime. 30% of those surveyed said they use skincare because they want to improve the health or appearance of their skin. Meanwhile, 21% said they were addressing a specific issue, such as spots or dry skin.

“The emphasis on male beauty is growing, and men may feel pressurised to keep up.”

And, again, there’s the impact of social media on our lives. Unfortunately, the pressure to be selfie-ready at all times means we pay a lot more attention at the way we look. That is particularly true for younger generations. Having clear skin is part of the package, especially in an era obsessed with health and wellness.

Women may bear the brunt of society’s obsession with beauty, but men aren’t exempt. The emphasis on male beauty is growing, and men may feel pressurised to keep up.

We also know more about the impact of the outside world on our skin and our general health. Protecting our skin from pollution and the sun has become a priority for many.

Sadly, men are less likely to wear sun cream than women. A 2017 YouGov survey found that almost a third of men in the UK go without sun cream in the summer, compared with just 15% of women. And that’s a problem. Skin cancer is on the rise, but especially in men, as 2017 research published by Cancer Research UK reveals.

Men are less likely to know about the risks of going without sun cream, according to research by the American Academy of Dermatology. And studies show that their skin can be more vulnerable to UV light.

Those men that do wear sun cream daily appreciate the importance of protecting their skin from the sun. A 2021 study found that 82% of men who regularly apply sun cream do so because they want to reduce the risk of skin cancer. 42% also said they wanted to keep their skin looking younger.

Men, Skincare, and Ageing

We’ve talked before about how ageism remains a huge problem in the beauty industry.

Historically, ageism has especially targeted women, whose worth has often been reduced to their ability to attract the male gaze. So-called “anti-ageing” products are overwhelming aimed at women, promoting the covert message that they are only valuable as long as they remain young and attractive. Men escape this pressure.

Indeed, society has traditionally been much more tolerant of men ageing than women but it seems that men don’t dodge the impact of ageism entirely. In a society based on individual productivity and our ability to hustle, men are sold a vision of the powerful, energetic provider.

Attitudes to gender roles may have shifted, but men still feel the expectation to prove their worth through career success and the ability to provide for their families.

“Men are more likely to be ‘allowed’ to age naturally.”

With ageism as rife in the job market as it is in the beauty industry, there’s pressure to stay young-looking to extend their careers. Still, while men experience ageism, it isn’t accompanied by the sexism that women face. Men are more likely to be “allowed” to age naturally. Where they do engage with anti-ageing attempts, they often focus on health and physical ability, instead of their appearance and beauty.

As a result, men often focus on the functionality of skincare and its benefits for their health. Staying young-looking may be a consideration, but it comes second to looking good for the age that they are.

“Time spent on Zoom and concerns over ‘Maskne’ (acne caused by wearing face masks), meant skincare routines remained an important part of daily life for both men and women.”

Covid 19 and the Growing Popularity of Self-Care

It is perhaps telling that Covid 19 had a less extreme impact on skincare products than it did on other beauty and personal care items.

Excused from going out in public for a few months, many men stopped shaving as regularly, and sales of razors and shaving creams dropped accordingly.

But time spent on Zoom and concerns over ‘Maskne’ (acne caused by wearing face masks), meant skincare routines remained an important part of daily life for both men and women.

Staring at your own face all day on Zoom calls can make anyone notice areas of their skin they aren’t happy with. The Zoom effect has sparked a renewed interest in men’s cosmetics and emphasised the importance of a good skincare regime.

Covid-19 also brought home the importance of self-care. At-home pampering products might still be marketed more at women than at men, but online searches for men’s skincare and men’s moisturisers both increased during 2020.

Both men and women have used the pandemic as an opportunity to simplify their skincare routines. Instead of looking for complicated products with high price tags, people are concentrating on active ingredients and steering clear of potentially harmful chemicals.

Of course, the virus has also emphasised how essential personal hygiene is. We’re all washing our hands and using hand sanitiser far more frequently than we did before. Some of that personal responsibility for staying clean will likely stay with us for the long term.

Marketing and Gendered Skincare

Historical attitudes to gender expression and what it means to be masculine continue to have some effect on the popularity of skincare for men. But is that the only reason that fewer men use skincare than women?

Research from 2017 on skincare in the US shows that 65% of women use skincare daily, compared with just 37% of men. That’s a big difference in take up between the two groups. Of course, one major factor in the continued association between skincare and femininity is advertising. Most skincare ads are still aimed at women and typically emphasise luxury, beauty, and self-care.

Adverts aimed at men usually focus on health and function instead. Shaving creams, cleansing washes, and moisturisers are all marketed in terms of their effectiveness.

When researchers delved deeper into the attitude of older men towards skincare, one theme they revealed was a lack of trust in the claims made by brands. The men interviewed simply didn’t believe that skincare would be effective, at least in the context of anti-ageing.

So, could this explain why men are less likely to use skincare than women? Are they less susceptible to marketing claims? Or is there simply less pressure for men to buy skincare products than women?

The growth of the men’s skincare market shows that men do buy and use skincare. But there is some evidence to suggest that men are generally more sceptical about marketing claims, as are older people.

Still, most people are slow to trust marketing messages without further research, especially when shopping online. So, maybe it is less about men’s resistance to advertising, and more about how men’s skincare is marketed?

“There is some evidence to suggest that men are generally more sceptical about marketing claims, as are older people.”

The Rise of Gender-Neutral Skincare: What Does Skin Really Need?

Advertisers have traditionally steered well clear of any hint of femininity or softness when promoting skincare products aimed at men. That’s why brands developed separate lines – they thought that trying to sell “women’s” products to men would be a losing battle.

Do men and women really need different skincare products though? That is up for debate.

Our skin does respond to our hormones. Research shows that people with higher levels of testosterone tend to have thicker, more oily skin and are more prone to wrinkles as they age. And, of course, they grow facial hair, which affects the skin too.

These differences mean that some people think that men and women have different skincare requirements. But there’s another school of thought that says each individual should respond to the needs of their own skin.

Hormones affect our skin. But so do diet, environmental factors, genetic factors, and age. Instead of worrying about men’s skincare versus women’s skincare, we should each look for products that fit the unique requirements of our skin.

Scanning the ingredients list on men’s products versus women’s, you’ll see there is a lot of overlap. While men’s skincare ranges aren’t entirely a marketing ploy, since hormones do cause some differences, there’s less need for gendered ranges than you might think.

Plus, not everyone fits neatly into the gender binary. As we understand more about the fluidity of gender, the need for specific men’s or women’s products looks increasingly outdated. Taking a gender-neutral approach to skincare means it is open to everyone.

At Whitfords, we’re fans of gender-neutral skincare and we want plastic-free skincare to be an option for everybody.

You can choose how much and how frequently you use our botanical skincare products, but they are all formulated to be highly effective in humans, regardless of gender.

Sources and further reading:

American Academy of Dermatology Association, Melanoma Strikes Men Harder

Byrne, A. (2016, June). Man talk: skincare not included and how this affects the market. In 4 th International Conference on Contemporary Marketing Issues ICCMI June 22-24, 2016 Heraklion, Greece (p. 28)

Cancer Research UK, Melanoma skin cancer incidence statistics

Chaudhri, S. K., & Jain, N. K. (2014). History of cosmetics. Asian Journal of Pharmaceutics (AJP): Free full text articles from Asian J Pharm3(3).

CNN, Makeup Is Changing the Meaning of Masculinity

Euromonitor International, South Korea: Largest Market for Men’s Skin Care Globally

Fairygodboss, Ageism in the Workplace: Executive Summary

Liu-Smith, F., Farhat, A. M., Arce, A., Ziogas, A., Taylor, T., Wang, Z., Yourk, V., Liu, J., Wu, J., McEligot, A. J., Anton-Culver, H., & Meyskens, F. L. (2017). Sex differences in the association of cutaneous melanoma incidence rates and geographic ultraviolet light exposure. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology76(3), 499–505.e3.

McKinsey & Company, How COVID-19 is changing the world of beauty

MIA Project, Clean Cut Soldiers

Money, The most searched for male grooming questions of 2020

New York Post, Men are turning to makeup during COVID after one-too-many Zoom calls

New York Times, ‘Metrosexuals’ Were Just Straight Men Who Loved Self-Care. Right?

Ojala, H., Calasanti, T., King, N., & Pietilä, I. (2016). Natural (ly) men: masculinity and gendered anti-ageing practices in Finland and the USA. Ageing & Society36(2), 356-375.

Patkar, K. (2008). Herbal cosmetics in ancient India. Indian Journal of Plastic Surgery, 41(S 01), 134-137.

Rahrovan, S., Fanian, F., Mehryan, P., Humbert, P., & Firooz, A. (2018). Male versus female skin: what dermatologists and cosmeticians should know. International journal of women’s dermatology, 4(3), 122-130.

Roberts, C. A., Goldstein, E. K., Goldstein, B. G., Jarman, K. L., Paci, K., & Goldstein, A. O. (2021). Men’s Attitudes and Behaviors About Skincare and Sunscreen Use Behaviors. Journal of drugs in dermatology : JDD20(1), 88–93

RTE, Chocolate, ice-cream, coffee sales go up as lipstick, razor sales decline

Smithsonian Magazine, This 2,700-Year-Old Chinese Face Cream Combined Animal Fat and ‘Moonmilk’

Statista, Men’s grooming and cosmetics market in the UK – Statistics & Facts

Statista, Skin care market in the U.S.

Statista, Number of people using face creams and lotions for men in Great Britain from 2016 to 2019, by specialist type

Statista, Personal care: attitudes among males in the United Kingdom (UK) 2016

Statista, Leading reasons for male skincare use in the United Kingdom (UK) 2016

The Independent, How Raw Eggs and Arsenic Played a Role in the History of Male Grooming

Thomas, S., & Kureshi, S. (2020). Consumer skepticism towards cause related marketing: exploring the consumer tendency to question from emerging market perspective. International Review on Public and Nonprofit Marketing, 1-12.

VRoma, Roman Baths and Bathing

YouGov, Almost a quarter of Brits don’t use sun cream in the summer

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