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Dead Sea salt cosmetics - the Dead Sea's history as a source of health & beauty treatments

Updated on July 16, 2009

Introduction to Dead Sea Salt Cosmetics

Bathing in the Dead Sea salt water is a frequent and very pleasant activity on a visit to Israel or Jordan. It's fun, it makes your skin feel good, and the scenery's amazing.

Dead Sea salts are also used frequently in cosmetics, skin lotions, skin care products, and in creams for various medical skin conditions, such as eczema or psoriasis.

But the idea of the "Dead Sea Spa" is not a new one. Far from it - for thousands of years the Dead Sea salts have been used for various beauty and cosmetic treatments and products.

This article looks at the history of the Dead Sea salt cosmetics industry, and knowledge of the Dead Sea's health properties, from the age of the Greeks, Romans, and Cleopatra to medieval times.

Ruins in the Nabataean settlement of Shivta (Sobota) in the Negev desert, Israel. Photo by Ester Inbar, available from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:ST
Ruins in the Nabataean settlement of Shivta (Sobota) in the Negev desert, Israel. Photo by Ester Inbar, available from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:ST

Nabataean use of the Dead Sea salt

The Nabataeans, a Semitic people who lived in Judea and the surrounding areas, first appear in the historical record in about 300 BC, fighting the Greeks.

Their capital city was in Petra, now in Jordan. They spoke Aramaic, and originally used the old Hebrew alphabet, then the Syriac alphabet, and then their own script, the Nabataean alphabet, which developed into the Arabic alphabet.

The Nabataeans made a lot of money out of trading the oil-like bitumen with Egypt, but this wasn't their sole source of income from the Dead Sea.

The Nabataeans also harvested other Dead Sea salts, and mixed them with balms including myrrh and frankincense, and sold the resulting creams.

This seems to be the earliest-known example of Dead Sea salt cosmetics (although they may also have been sold as medical lotions).

Cleopatra VII of Egypt, Mark Antony's lover. A 1st century BC statue. Photo is in the public domain.
Cleopatra VII of Egypt, Mark Antony's lover. A 1st century BC statue. Photo is in the public domain.

Cleopatra and the Dead Sea

Queen Cleopatra's lover, Mark Antony, supported King Herod during the Parthian Wars. In 37 BC, Herod and Mark Antony's armies captured Judea, including Jerusalem and the Dead Sea region. Herod became the puppet King of Judea.

If you look at Dead Sea salt vendors, spas, and cosmetic sellers on the internet, they pretty much all say that Cleopatra went to the Dead Sea and built her own spa there, and was an enthusiastic user of Dead sea salt cosmetics, skin creams, and lotions.

They are all a bit light on actual historical evidence, though. Cleopatra definitely funded the wars, as Mark Antony's brother-in-law in Rome, Octavius, kept promising to fund an army but never quite got round to doing it.

But in the reading I've done on the Parthain War, I've not seen any reference to Cleopatra's Dead Sea Spa.

In Plutarch's Lives, he wrote that Mark Antony sent:

Fonteius Capito to bring Cleopatra into Syria. To whom at her arrival he made no small or trifling present, Phœnicia, Cœle-Syria, Cyprus, great part of Cilicia, that side of Judæa which produces balm, that part of Arabia where the Nabathæans extend to the outer sea; profuse gifts which much displeased the Romans.

So it seems that Mark Antony "gave" the area including the Dead Sea to Cleopatra (nice gift!) but doesn't say she went there. In fact, he goes on to say that Mark Antony sent Cleopatra back to Egypt some time later, then joined her there for the winter.

It's also known that Cleopatra leased the rights to the Dead Sea salt and mineral industries back to the Nabataeans, for 200 silver talents a year (a vast sum).

Nice as it would be to think of this renowned historical beauty at the Dead Sea, until I see some historical reference, the jury's out as far as I'm concerned.

A 15th century painting showing Herod's entry into Jerusalem
A 15th century painting showing Herod's entry into Jerusalem

Greeks, Romans, and Dead Sea salts

Herod

King Herod the Great was very fond of the health and beauty properties of the Dead Sea. According to the Roman historian, an ex-Jew who converted, Josephus Flavius, he spent time there, and even built palaces for himself near by so as not to be short of a luxury or two when on a spa retreat.

Herod (goodness knows why he's called "the Great" as he was a murderous so-and-so) built the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and also the famous palace at Masada, overlooking the Dead Sea.

Galen

The Greek physician, Galen of Pergamum, was born in 129 AD. He wrote books which were still being used as medical textbooks and practitioners' guide 1,400 years later in European universities and cities. Some of his ideas were still being taught to medical students in Victorian times.

Fewer than 200 out of his 600-odd works survive today (a total of about 3 million words), and many of them mention the properties of Dead Sea salts and minerals.

Galen actually visited the Dead Sea, during his time in Palestine. Writing of the Dead Sea salts for health purposes, Galen said:

the most beautiful asphalt is produced in the Sea called 'Dead' ... the potency of this medicine consists in its drying and next its healing capabilities; it is indeed appropriate that people use it for closing bleeding wounds.

He also prescribed it as an ingredient in medicines taken internally (NB - don't try this at home.....)

The Dead Sea spa experience was specifically recommended by Galen to Roman soldiers serving in the region, as being good for the skin, as well as generally rejuvenating.

A satellite image of the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee. This image is in the public domain.
A satellite image of the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee. This image is in the public domain.

Islam and the Dead Sea

Shams-ad-Din, a Muslim writer, published a book about the geography of Palestine and its surrounds in 985 AD. Far from seeing the Dead Sea as a source of health and beauty, though, he recommended that:

those who find the Angel of Death is delayed should try the evil climate of the south end of the Dead Sea valley

On the other hand, the Islamic doctor al-Tamini wrote in praise of the health benefits of the Dead Sea in 1068 AD:

I have seen many of the sick with diverse chronic infirmities who visited this Lake, bathed in and drank from its waters, of injected it in the form of enemas and were miraculously healed.

Not a new idea - following in King Herod's Dead Sea mud footsteps (C) this author
Not a new idea - following in King Herod's Dead Sea mud footsteps (C) this author

The Crusaders and the Dead Sea

The Dead Sea was part of the Kingdom of Jerusalem after the First Crusade, and there was a Crusader Castle at Karak, overlooking the Dead Sea.

Fulcher of Chartres (also known as Fulk and Fulke) who went on the First Crusade and stayed in the Kingdom of Jerusalem for decades afterwards, wrote of the Dead Sea in his book about the Crusade and the Kingdom. He went to some efforts to identify the sources of the Jordan and streams that ran into the Dead Sea, and tasted it to see if it was salty, but does not mention any health or beauty benefits.

He said of one expedition made by King Baldwin of Jerusalem:

We then came into the valley where of old time stood the guilty cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which God destroyed in his wrath, and in which now is the Lake Asphaltides, whose waters are so bitter, that birds and other animals cannot drink of them, nor fish live in them, whence it is called the Dead Sea. i myself made trial of the bitterness of its waters, for I got down from my mule to taste them, and found them more bitter than hellebore.

That doesn't sound like much of an endorsement for the health and beauty properties of the Dead Sea, really.

In contrast, some later doctors and pharmacists in the Kingdom of Jerusalem did extol the health benefits of Dead Sea salt, and also praised the mud for improving skin quality. A Franciscan monk living in Jerusalem, Roger, was particularly keen in the 12th century.

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    • dohn121 profile image

      dohn121 8 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      Very interesting. I believe that you can't drown in the Dead Sea, right because of it's insolubility that causes you to become buoyant? During the Christmas shopping season, Dead Sea Cosmetics vendors were always in every mall I attended. One girl actually "polished" my nails with this special file. She did such a good job that I became embarassed because she made my nails look...Feminine. My nails never before looked so nice!

    • LondonGirl profile image
      Author

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      It would be pretty hard to drown, as you are so boyant - the salinity of the Dead Sea is about 36%. It might be possible, though, I've not tried to drown myself there (-:

    • emohealer profile image

      Sioux Ramos 8 years ago from South Carolina

      Interesting history, I appreciate that you shared the rumours and clarified what is not confirmed. Your research made this hub. Excellent!

    • eccles profile image

      eccles 8 years ago from Queensland, Australia

      LondonGirl,

      I like the Andrew Dickson White Book. That will be good reading.

      TY

    • advisor4qb profile image

      advisor4qb 8 years ago from On New Footing

      Cool hub. I always stop at the Dead Sea stand in the mall, where they rub one hand in something from the Dead Sea. I love that stuff.

    • LondonGirl profile image
      Author

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      emo, I'm glad you liked it. I need to see evidence when it comes to great historical stories, it's the lawyer in me (-:

    • LondonGirl profile image
      Author

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      Eccles, sorry to be thick, but I've not come across the Andrew D book. What's it about?

      Advisor, glad you enjoyed it! I'm a fan of Dead Sea products myself, as my dressing table can attest.

    • Philipo profile image

      Philipo 8 years ago from Nigeria

      This is informative. It must have taken a lot of time to write. Thnks.

    • LondonGirl profile image
      Author

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      Hi Philipo - glad you found it interesting.

    • BrianS profile image

      Brian Stephens 8 years ago from Castelnaudary, France

      I had never heard of making cosmetics from salt, but clearly it is a part of my education I missed out on before now. Interesting stuff.

    • LondonGirl profile image
      Author

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      Dead Sea extracts are common in the posh cosmetics world! IT's not quite the same as normal, bog standard sea salt, though.

    • profile image

      brownlickie 8 years ago

      Very good hub london girl. your history is a lot better than mine . Well done regards brownlickie

    • LondonGirl profile image
      Author

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      Thanks - glad you found it interesting.

    • Sandyspider profile image

      Sandy Mertens 8 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

      Great history lesson. First time I heard of cosmetics from salt.

    • Jenny30 profile image

      Jennifer 8 years ago from Canada

      wow great hub! I use salt a lot in my skin treatments! I love the way you describe the origin of the dead salt! Brilliant!

    • Teresa McGurk profile image

      Sheila 8 years ago from The Other Bangor

      I do like the history here. Cleopatra, Herod, Galen, Fulke -- I really enjoy reading well-researched articles that mention historical figures in relation to the topic being discussed. Brings it all to life. Thanks!

    • Plants and Oils profile image

      Plants and Oils 8 years ago from England

      I enjoyed this, it's a shame we can't imagine Cleopatra there in her own Dead Sea spa!

    • LondonGirl profile image
      Author

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      Hi Sandy - glad you enjoyed it. It's not "salt" in the sense of just table salt, though, it's a mix of all kinds of stuff.

      Thanks very much Jenny, glad you liked the hub.

    • LondonGirl profile image
      Author

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      Hi Teresa, coming from you, that's a great compliment! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      I'd like to imagine Cleo there, too, but evidence, evidence.....

    • SweetiePie profile image

      SweetiePie 8 years ago from Southern California, USA

      The history of cosmetics and the dead sea is all very fascinating, but I am not sure I would drink the water. I am just not adventurous enough maybe.

    • LondonGirl profile image
      Author

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      Hi SP - you shouldn't drink it. It tastes very strong indeed, and isn't particularly good for you internally. Externally, great!

    • shamelabboush profile image

      shamelabboush 8 years ago

      This is a sequence of the previous hub about the dead sea! This completes all the facts about this marvellous location. Thanks LondonGirl.

    • SweetiePie profile image

      SweetiePie 8 years ago from Southern California, USA

      I was kidding about drinking the water. I think I was just in a weird mood last night, and also thinking of the one many you mentioned in the hub who did drink it.

    • LondonGirl profile image
      Author

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      Thanks Shame, glad you enjoyed it.

      SP, glad to hear you won't be drinking it!

    • ReuVera profile image

      ReuVera 8 years ago from USA

      No drinking for sure, but definitely everyone who dipped himself in this water, tried it on his tongue :-) Yak!

      I am a big supporter of salt therapy. I like mud too :-)

      LondonGirl, you made a great job, very thorough research, great facts. Cleopatra really disappointed me LOL I remember when going on that road many years ago, we were pointed by a guide to a rock formation which, as he said, was "Lot's wife turned into a salt pillar". Legend, but fascinating.

    • sukkran profile image

      Mohideen Basha 8 years ago from TRICHY, TAMIL NADU, INDIA.

      first time i heared about the health benefits of the dead sea. thks for the info

    • sukkran profile image

      Mohideen Basha 8 years ago from TRICHY, TAMIL NADU, INDIA.

      first time i heared about the health benefits of the dead sea. thks for the info

    • mulberry1 profile image

      mulberry1 7 years ago

      I had heard of Dead Sea salt cosmetics but really knew nothing about them. You've remedied that! Good bit of history.

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 7 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      What a wonderfully researched and informative hub! Until your first Dead Sea hub and now this one, I had no idea that particular body of water isn't really "dead".

    • IntimatEvolution profile image

      Julie Grimes 7 years ago from Columbia, MO USA

      Great hub LG! I love bath salts. Thanks for sharing.

    • packerpack profile image

      Om Prakash Singh 7 years ago from India, Calcutta

      Hi LG seeing you after a long time. Have been keeping busy with office work. Came here following your message from stumbleupon toolbar.

      All I knew about dead sea that it is a good tourist spot simply because you can be in the middle of the sea without a boat and still do not get drowned. I had did not have even the slightest idea about it cosmetics value.

      Great information presented and good to see you after a long time.

    • Patti Ann profile image

      Patti Ann 7 years ago from Florida

      Excellent hub - I have used a body scrub made from Dead Sea salt and it was great.

    • Lgali profile image

      Lgali 7 years ago

      Great hub LG good to know health benefits of the dead sea

    • bath angel profile image

      bath angel 7 years ago

      This is definitely a great hub, citing literary works and you really covered a lot. Wish I could write like you.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 7 years ago from Chicago

      Very well done and interesting Hub. I was floating in the Dead Sea ten days ago for the first time and that is an eerie experience. I also visited Masada. Thanks for the fine history lesson.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Amazing how the Dead Sea salts have been so popular for so long. Hope they don't run out of salt. Anyway, thanks for all the info about something quite common that I really did not know anything about!

    • H P Roychoudhury profile image

      H P Roychoudhury 7 years ago from Guwahati, India

      It is interesting and fascinating to know about “Dead Sea”. The historic name such as the beauty queen Cleopatra & Anthony of Great Roman all are the sense of thrill to know more about Dead Sea. Thank you for sharing with this great hub.

    • Info Help profile image

      Info Help 7 years ago from Chicago

      Hi LondonGirl!

      This hub is fantastic! I was just at the mall in my area and they were selling kits that contained dead sea salt and showed me an example of how much better my nails can look and feel. IT is absolutely amazing at how this works! I am a fan :)

    • Kaie Arwen profile image

      Kaie Arwen 7 years ago

      Dead Sea salts are very beneficial! Thank you for all of the extra information.

    • profile image

      Martin V 7 years ago

      Great Hub! very interesting!

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 7 years ago from The English Midlands

      I use Dead Sea Salt products. They are very good.

      And this hub gave some really interesting and informative background. Thank you :)

    • LondonGirl profile image
      Author

      LondonGirl 7 years ago from London

      Thanks all! Glad you enjoyed it

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Haze 7 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Great hub, excellent research. I look forward to reading more of your hubs.

    • Kevin Peter profile image

      Kevin Peter 6 years ago from Global Citizen

      hello miss longirl, your hub is really interesting. Your research on dead sea is really nice. And you had provided very interestingly the history of dead sea. Excellent and informative hub.

    • soaps profile image

      soaps 6 years ago

      We also have make soaps with dead sea mud that is an interesting and informative hub , thanks LondonGirl

    • profile image

      Pariyanto 2 years ago

      В оригинале указано точное расписание: 3 часть будет тоже в полночь с 18 на 19 ноября (This will be a onetime only event chain that will run mliltpue hours, and it will kick off at noon PST (20:00 GMT)).

    • profile image

      Josie 2 years ago

      Stands back from the keyboard in amnmzeeat! Thanks!

    • profile image

      Santosh 2 years ago

      tazi shmatka odvnaa da si e hvarlil ostavkata ,ama kato znae posle kakvo shte mu se sluchi,i si e izbral po malkoto losho,toi mishokat znae kak nakazva bat boiko

    • Taranwanderer profile image

      Taranwanderer 2 years ago

      Great info on the Dead Sea - not too many people know about the health benefits of basking in it. I'm happy to learn that the respective governments are taking precautions against the dwindling sea so that future generations can experience it - they are building a 110 mile pipeline or something like that.

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