Social Experimenta-skin: What Connects 17th-century Lady Scientists and Today’s Skincare Enthusiasts

In her Atlantic article, Julie Beck calls today’s skincare regimens an “at-home science experiment.” Women and those with an interest in skincare, but largely “thinking women,” (Beck quoting Krithika Varagur), are finding the field of options so daunting that they’re “becom[ing] citizen scientists—educating themselves and each other about what works and experimenting on their own faces.”

On Youtube, reddit, informally circulated google docs, and among friends, people are sharing their experiments on their own faces–what works, what didn’t, what might be toxic, what clears pimples when nothing else will. Many of these skin-experimenters are turning to scientific studies only to realize that there aren’t many available: “Academic studies are often inaccessible to the public. And even though there is some good research on skin care out there, it’s understandably skewed toward prescription drugs and the treatment of medical skin conditions like acne and eczema,” writes Beck. Those studies that do exist often don’t have many subjects, because there isn’t much funding available.

What this means is that a lot of our collective skincare knowledge is anecdotal data, gathered from experiments we run on our own faces and pass around through social networks.

To someone who studies women’s scientific work in the 17th century, this type of knowledge sounds very familiar. I’ve been arguing in my dissertation, and in a recent article for Gastro Obscura, that 17th-century English women were extensively experimenting in their own homes and sharing that knowledge through their social networks. A housewife of any class would likely have spent a fair amount of her time making remedies, trying them out on local and family patients, observing their effects to see whether or not they worked, and adjusting accordingly.

The manuscript recipe collections I study are full of evidence of these home experiments: little notes in the margins that say “I have found good experimentally of this medicine,” as Ann Fanshawe adds to her receipt against miscarrying, or “my mother constantly useth,” which helps authorize Elizabeth Okeover’s salve for old or new sores (Wellcome MS 7113 f. 27r; MS 3712 f. 38v). And we have hundreds of manuscript recipe books, which gives you a sense of how widespread this practice was in early modern English culture.


Ann Fanshawe’s medical experimentation at home; picture from my collection

Over in the Royal Society, male scientists were trying to make natural philosophy a profession. They conducted elaborate experiments for the public and made meticulous records of their observations. 17th-century English women were doing the same work in different spaces, but because the Royal Society was formed precisely to exclude women and amateurs, women’s scientific work went largely unrecognized.

They were so successful that until recently, women weren’t a part of the narrative of the rise of modern science, and certainly not in any volume. Until recently, we haven’t had any sort of data about women’s involvement in 17th-century science.

But I’m arguing differently–I think if we turn to the manuscript recipe collections as record of early scientific practices, we see a totally different picture than what the Royal Society propagated. We see women actively experimenting, recording their experience as anecdotes, sharing it through social networks, and producing experimentally-verified knowledge about the body and medicine.

Sound familiar? Contemporary skincare knowledge operates in very similar ways to 17th-century domestic experimentation, down to the fact that its gendered associations keep it from being recognized by professional scientists.

Except in the case of skincare data, we don’t have to wait 400 years to realize its importance. With a little shift in what we consider “evidence,” we could see these massive, crowd-sourced, socially circulated repositories of knowledge as experimental results. The evidence within them is anecdotal, and with skincare it’s hard to tell if the product, the sun, your diet, or whether Mercury is in retrograde changed your face, but it is nonetheless evidence.

The 17th-century ladies doing science remind us that knowledge can be located in a variety of spaces, not all of them formal. The labors of scientific inquiry can be conducted in the home, and can produce knowledge that circulates through social networks. And experiment doesn’t have to be carried out by just professional scientists–who better to provide knowledge about a substance’s interactions with the body than the owner of the body itself?

If we’re searching for data on skincare and body chemistry, why not start to look in the spaces where skincare enthusiasts gather to share their experimental results? What knowledge could we gain if scientists considered the thousands of anecdotal experiments reported in these circles as important data?

Early modern ladies’ books tell us that there was far more knowledge about the body present in the 17th century than was published by professional scientists and doctors. Perhaps the skincare forums will tell us other stories about the body; will produce knowledge we don’t yet have access to because we’re not looking in the right places.

And there’s one more thing that 17th-century household experiments and contemporary skincare have in common. Snail water is popular again.


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