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November 2014

Chemical Depilatories in Ancient Rome: The Torpedo Formula

Author Affiliations
  • 1Division of Pediatric Dermatology, University Hospital Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland
  • 2Department of Dermatology and Venereology, University Hospital Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland
JAMA Dermatol. 2014;150(11):1196. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2014.2122

Depilation was widely performed in ancient Rome and was considered a class identifier. A clean-shaven person symbolized civilization and progress, whereas a beard was regarded as a mark of slavery and barbarism. Besides the use of razors with curved tweezers (forcipes aduncae), chemical depilatory agents were very popular. In the famous treatise on Cosmetics, written in the second century ad by Criton of Heraclea, chief physician of the Roman Emperor Trajan, a chemical depilatory recipe was mentioned that contained yellow orpiment, quicklime, Selinus earth, and fine meal (starch). Chemical depilatories were named psilotron, from the Greek psilo, to strip, or acilea, from the Latin acies/acer, meaning sharp edge, reflecting thus the mixture’s extreme causticity. Other chemical depilatories were also used in form of paste, based on resins, essential oils, and caustics.1

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