Dr Ginnie Cumming: Clean Cosmetics and the History of Purity

Ginnie Cumming lives in North London and is the author of Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity, published in 2008 by Oxford University press. The book provides an endearing, factual and anthropological account on the history of personal care and the ways in which humans upheld social practices through pampering, hygiene and even cosmetics. I spoke to Ginnie to pick her brain and find out how these topics are incredibly relevant today.

Hi Ginnie. What motivated you to write your book?

My original motivation for CLEAN came from watching an Italian village go on passegiata (an evening promenade) dressed in their gleaming white linen and other finery, and all beautifully groomed. Yet their houses were medieval, small and dark. I thought – how did they manage to put on such a show, and why?

Tell me about the research you conducted whilst writing it…

As a historian, I don’t do field research. We work from texts mainly – though I did once want to make a historical and sociological survey of all the grooming shops on the A1 road from the Thames to Highgate, plus videoed oral history interviews! But I didn’t get the grant – cosmetic history is very low down amongst (male) historians, I have found. However, I am continually monitoring modern examples of ancient practises. The thing I have loved doing is travelling to and swimming in hot springs round the world – including visiting Neolithic ‘burnt mounds’ (possible Neolithic saunas) in Orkney!

If you were writing CLEAN today, what would you add to your work?

I would expand the contemporary history section. It has been fascinating to follow the rise of ‘clean eating’, ‘pure living’ and vegan/vegetarianism. Almost all of it has been prefigured in the earlier history of alternative health care, as it is actually based on ancient empirical and Galenic medicine. Grooming is and always has been a big global business. I have also recently become interested in the psychology of cleanliness, especially around the issues of hoarding and self-neglect.

Did you uncover any social issues around personal care and cleanliness?

Yes. Mainly that the standards of personal hygiene and grooming depend largely on; a) available time b) available money c) available technology. What has definitely changed most is the technology i.e. hot running water, and electricity. Also, one is always better off in terms of grooming if one has family and friends. Social isolation increases the risk of self-neglect.

Did you uncover any environmental issues?

Lots (see my last chapter on the green anti-pollution movement). What has happened since then is the role of hygiene products and the contamination of the oceans and sewers – i.e. the increased use of ‘hygienic’ plastic, and microplastics, and the recent rise in the use of baby-wipes, which are virtually indestructible. Almost everything we now use to protect ourselves against germs now ends up in the environment after we have thrown it away – including our medicines and antibiotics. We did not realise the path we had taken when many of these things were invented in the 20th century.

What do you think about the new green and clean personal care ‘movement’?

See above. My own opinion is that most of it is harmless, and simply an expression of rising wealth in our population. We can now afford to be choosy, and spend more on allo-grooming ie nail bars and various specialty therapies (colonoscopies , botox etc). In fact personal services and grooming facilities are booming in the high street. However, I do worry that vegans are not getting a balanced diet (and I do hope they are not feeding their children the same way); and that by failing to believe in contemporary science, people are storing up trouble for themselves and society in general ie. the fall in vaccination rates. 

Do you think there is scope for personal care, as global industry, to become more democratic and more sustainable?

Good question. In a way, personal care has always been democratic, and at its simplest level is completely sustainable – all it needs is water, time, tools, and a helping hand. If you read the first chapter on allo-grooming you will see what I mean. People discovered this during WW2, when all their supplies of luxuries were cut off. They did not stop grooming, but there was a huge pent up demand for them after the war. It is the economic difference between necessities and luxuries, which all depends on circumstances. 
I do worry about the sustainability of certain ingredients though, i.e palm oil, glitter in cosmetics, or rare animal products in cosmetics. As for global reach, what we have now is a concentration of power in certain global companies, who have swamped the local cosmetic industries. But in their defence, I think cosmetics are now much safer and purer than they were, and work better, thanks to all the science that has gone into them, including the longevity and stability of the ingredients. If one wanted to build a cosmetic business today, one would have to match their quality, or provide a service to go with it. Either that, or wait for DIY cosmetics to become fashionable or desirable in some way – local ingredients? No air miles?

Ginnie at home