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Rose Water: The World’s Oldest Beauty Secret

It’s amazing how, in the age of modern medicine, we continue to rely on ancient remedies for a vast number of simple illnesses and injuries.

In the case of skin care, rose water is exactly one of those ancient remedies that will always stand the test of time. It boasts an incredible history, too, and the significance of the rose to the development of skin care, beautification, medicine, cooking and symbology can’t be understated.

For every new over-the-counter throat medicine developed, the healing powers of manuka honey still measure up. In many parts of the world tea tree oil is still favoured over commercially packaged antiseptics.

While there isn’t much dispute that chemical-based products have greatly improved some of our health and beauty practices, there’s clearly something to be said for the lasting pertinence of natural remedies.

The Ancient and Fragrant History of Rose Water

In its purest form, rose water is made by steeping rose petals in water. The flavoured and heavenly scented liquid is a by-product of the weeks-long distillation that goes into making rose oil. 

Both rose oil and rose water are the foundation for some of the world’s oldest perfumes. You may have heard of the Damascus hybrid, which is the most commonly harvested flower for rose water due to its fine fragrance and flavour.

Though the process of making rose water is fairly straight-forward, its historical significance to health, beauty, cuisine and religious rituals spans across the whole world.

Before delving into the history of the world’s favourite flower from which the medicinally wondrous rose water derives it’s worth considering some of the ways the rose is used  today.

Roses and Romance: Symbolism in Pop Culture

Roses are regularly featured in pop culture as an enigmatic symbol and literary device. Themes of love, romance, femininity and youthfulness are intrinsically tied to the rose; but modern fiction also has the rose as a symbol of underlying darkness - a focus on its thorns and not just its petals

In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia chronicles an evil witch persuades a young boy to join her by offering him a box of rose-flavored Turkish Delight. Famed English poet Anne Brontë uses the rose as a metaphor for something which is beautiful but can bring pain, as ‘he who dares not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose’. This idea shows up in the Oscar-winning Titanic, too, when Jack faces hostility and eventually dies because of his love for the heroine, Rose.

Critically acclaimed drama American Beauty sees Kevin Spacey’s character become romantically obsessed with his daughter’s high school friend, Angela. Though married and much older, he can’t stop fantasizing about Angela immersed in a bed of roses. In this case both the rose and Angela’s celestial name symbolize her virginity, beauty and sexual allure.

The Disney adaptation of the classic fairytale, Beauty and the Beast, features an ‘enchanted rose’ as symbolism for the shallow and selfish nature which turned the prince into a beast. When human, the male protagonist sneered at an old woman who begged him for shelter in exchange for a beautiful rose. Realizing there was no compassion in the prince, the old woman turned him into a beast; a curse that could not be lifted unless he discovered true love by his 21st birthday -- at which point the last petal would wilt from the enchanted rose. 

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince is without a doubt one of the most beloved stories of all time and features a rose as one of the central characters. The Little Prince is in love with his beautiful rose, despite how difficult and argumentative she can be. It’s not until the rose and the Little Prince are separated, however, that the prince understands his true feelings for the rose.

Even though the prince encounters hundreds of beautiful roses on his journey he realizes that this doesn’t make his own rose any less special. Saint-Expuréry’s wife, with whom the author had a similarly turbulent and sometimes unfaithful relationship, is believed to have been the inspiration behind the rose.[1] 

In the hit single ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow,’ Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue tell the story of an innocent young girl, Elisa Day, seduced by a handsome but deranged man who takes her to the riverbank ‘where the wild roses grow’ only to murder her in a senseless act of passion.

After her death, Elisa is remembered through legend as the ‘Wild Rose;’ a reference perhaps to how naively she strayed from a safe Christian path by having relations with a man outside of wedlock. Ultimately, Elisa perishes because of her beauty - just as the rose inevitably wilts, Nick Cave sings ‘all beauty must die.’

In a perverted sense of poeticism, her body is left to wither amidst the riverbank roses.

Hollywood’s Healthy Habits and Beauty Brands

The scent of rose is as popular a fragrance as ever; and it’s the basis of countless high-end perfumes, body washes and lip balms. But only pure rose water makes the cut for the world’s most iconic beauty stylists and their subjects.



Fashion magazines rave about all of the rose water benefits for health while Hollywood celebrities are helping propel its popularity with their personal use of the distilled floral water.

Kara Yoshimoto Bua, the beauty stylist behind the flawless looks of celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston and Anne Hathaway, is a big advocate of rose water. She explains that rose water helps cleanse the skin of impurities and tighten pores, leaves the face looking smooth and fresh. Rose water also works as a toner and is typically applied before the first layer of make-up.

“No matter if you have dry or oily skin it is vital to moisturize to prepare the canvas. I start by spritzing Rose Water in my hand and apply lightly to the face and neck,” Yoshimoto Bua says.[2] Eva Mendes also revealed she uses rose water as a toner to keep her face hydrated. As for perfumes - Scarlett Johansson, Freja Beha Erichsen and Natalie Portman are just some of many big names to have promoted rose water-based fragrances in recent years.

Today, roses also feature in a number of classic and contemporary spa treatments designed for relaxation or revitalization, particularly in couples’ massages where essential rose oil adds a romantic touch. The rose remains a favourite amongst aromatherapists, many of whom recommend drinking the occasional glass of rose water for a rejuvenating health kick.

As a drink, rose water is said to help enhance one’s mood, calm nerves, relieve indigestion or bloating and help in the treatment of flu and colds. “It has also been used as cough syrup, to treat reflux, as a laxative and to reduce blood sugar,” says diet and lifestyle journalist Jennifer Nelson.

As more people become increasingly aware of the benefits natural cosmetics can hold over artificial products and synthetic scents, the demand for rose water has been on the rise. A handful of brands are bringing pure floral essences back into the mainstream, making rose water an affordable option for those in search of natural, high quality skin care.

Egyptian Origins: Why the World’s Most Beautiful Woman Used Rose Water

Eva Mendes and Jennifer Aniston are far from the first beauty icons to have taken advantage of rose water’s skin-loving properties.

As far back as 3500 B.C. the ancient Egyptians had discovered a way to extract flower essences through distillation. The use of the Egyptian rose, known for its rich layers of petals, was well documented.


Having noticed the flowers’ ability to reduce inflammation, rose water was incorporated into ancient Egyptian aromatherapy. The people of ancient Egypt weren’t just advanced in the field of medicine, after all - they were equally sophisticated in matters of hygiene and beauty.[3]

Throughout the Egyptian Empire natural scents were applied to the body either as insect repellants or as enticing perfumes. The Egyptians even had a God of fragrance named Nefertum and believed that the scent of rose indicated sacredness. Rose petals were commonly scattered in tombs of the deceased for this reason.

The Egyptians were so advanced at making exquisite fragrances out of plants that their perfumes became the most prized across the ancient world. Typically stored within beautifully intricate bottles, the perfumes were made out of frankincense, cedarwood, cinnamon, juniper berry and rose petals. Face creams and other cosmetic salves typically contained rose water, fenugreek oil, saffron, lavender and aloe vera.

While perfumes made from rare and expensive ingredients were used only by the upper class, men and women from all social divisions commonly used aromatic oils as a means to moisturize and fragrance their bodies amid the Egyptian heat. Beautification was central to ancient Egyptian culture, regardless of wealth or status - so much so that bottles of perfume were commonly supplied as part of the working class’ salaries.

Cleopatra was said to have been especially fond of roses, covering every inch of her opulent palace floors and luxurious bed chamber with its petals. It’s widely claimed to this day that Cleopatra was a woman of remarkable beauty and youthful complexion. 

According to Greek biographer Plutarch, she was “astonishingly proud in the matter of beauty.” She used a number of softening ointments on her skin as a means of maintaining her appearance. With the popular use of roses throughout the empire, and the flower’s connotations of divinity, it’s very likely that her beauty rituals involved rose water. 

Athenaeus recorded that Cleopatra even had the sails of her royal barge soaked in rose water so that the scent would be carried in the wind wherever she sailed. Shakespeare makes reference to this in the play ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ where he describes the rose-scented winds around Cleopatra as ‘lovesick’.

Rome’s Early Botanists and the Empire’s Rose Baths

Scent, hygiene and beauty were as important to the ancient Romans as they were to the Egyptian Empire. The Romans famously used great amounts of frankincense and myrrh in their perfume while rose water was used mainly for bathing and skin care.

Rome’s upper class were keen on washing themselves in large and decadent public baths into which rose water could be poured.[4] The rose water was used to soften the skin and clear it from imperfections while nourishing balms and oils were used to wash hair.

Emperor Nero, ever the eccentric, apparently had silver pipes installed along the dinner halls so his guests could be sprinkled with rose water and rose petals at his parties. The use of roses by ancient Rome’s ruling class further entrenched the flower as a widely recognized symbol of luxury and affluence.

The Romans were also among the first to properly document rose water’s medicinal effects. As rigorous record keepers and early botanists, they made note of how rose water affected the human body, particularly the skin, in ways that today we explain through science.

They noticed, for example, that rose water functioned as an excellent moisturizer, softening and smoothing the skin even during harsh winter weather. Today, we now know that rose water is excellent for our skin because roses contain antioxidants like Vitamin E which fight wrinkles and replenish skin tissue.

The Romans also observed that rose water could soothe inflammation and reduce redness of the skin. What they couldn’t have known is that rose petals are packed with antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. The Romans didn’t need an explanation, however - all they knew is that rose water worked wonders in healing wounds and treating everything from eczema to infections and irritated skin.

They also noted that rose water had a calming effect on those who applied it to their body. Of course, rose water continues to be used in modern aromatherapy and spas for that exact reason.

Recent studies have indicated that both blood pressure and heart rate can decrease when a subject comes in contact with natural rose fragrance. The rose’s mood-enhancing scent is, no doubt, partly why the flower has gained connotations of seductiveness and sensuality.

The Rose of St Valentine: Birth of a Romantic Tradition

Legend has it that a Christian priest named Valentine lived in the third century Roman Empire, under the tyrannous rule of Claudius II. When the empire struggled to recruit young soldiers to the Roman army Claudius soon identified the cause; young men were getting married and becoming increasingly unwilling to leave their wives for war. So the emperor forbid marriages and engagements throughout Rome.

In an act of defiance, Valentine is said to have performed secret marriage ceremonies for young couples. When Claudius learned of these secret marriages, Valentine was thrown into prison and sentenced to death.

While in prison Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s blind daughter. Valentine would read to her and teach her about Rome’s history as she became equally infatuated with him. The day before his death Valentine sent her a single rose and letter which read ‘From Your Valentine.’ 

The story of Valentine’s martyrdom and his brief romance with the jailer’s daughter is one of the most widely commemorated in the world. Valentine’s Day has come to symbolize the perseverance of love above all else and roses are aptly associated with the holiday.

In recent years the tradition of giving roses on Valentine’s Day has developed to include alternative types of rose-related presents. Rose-petal baths, rose-scented candles, distilled rose water perfumes and rose jewelry have all become staples of this romantic day.

Royalty and Roses in Ancient Persia

Some have disputed claims that the ancient Egyptians were the pioneers of distillation and perfumery. There does exist evidence to suggest that the tradition of extracting floral essences had already been founded in Persia, or modern-day Iran, before coming to ancient Egypt and then being further refined by the Romans. 

Regardless of the exact origins, ancient Persia undoubtedly had a huge impact on the history of rose water. By 810 BC Persia had become one of the biggest centres for rose water production, exporting to numerous countries across the Middle East and to China. 

Islamic nations started including rose water in their cuisine, a tradition continued today with sweets such as Turkish Delight, rose jams and Baklava[5].

Darius the Great, who ruled the Persian Empire at its peak between 521 and 448 BC, is depicted in an ancient Persepolis carving as being surrounded by flowers and with two scent bottles in front of him.[6] References to scented oils and water also featured in the works of Iranian poets of this time.

The mythological Iranian king, Jamshid, is described by theological scholars as having been enthralled by fragrant flowers. It’s said that he regularly collected sweet-scented specimens - including roses - from his numerous journeys.

It wasn’t until sometime after the year 1010 that the renowned medieval Persian polymath known as Avicenna transformed perfume production. Using roses in his experiments, the Persian chemist vastly improved upon the distillation process and made it more effective and less costly.

As rose water became more affordable its popularity soared across Persia. The liquid’s subtle fragrance was generally preferred over the more pungent scent of highly concentrated perfumes available at the time. But the Persians realized rose water had practical uses besides hygiene.

Illnesses were perceived to be the product of evil in ancient Persia, thus natural ingredients associated with beauty and goodness were thought to be the best antidotes. Of course, somewhat coincidentally, such ingredients very often were effective in the treatment of illnesses and injuries.

Ancient Persian aromatherapists applied essential oils and rose water to the damaged skin of their patients or sold rose-water based ointments that could be used in both skin care and beauty routines at home. 

The significance of rose water to Iranian culture is apparent across the country to this day, but no more so than in the county of Kashan during the latter half of May. At this time each year, the ‘garden city’ known as Qamsar celebrates its rose water festival with a number of rose-related ceremonies.

Thousands of tourists are drawn here annually to see the native Damascus rose fields and buy local bottles of rose water, bags of dried rose petals, rose soaps, skin care products and cosmetics. The natives even call the rose ‘the flower of Prophet Muhammad’ as legend has it that ‘whoever smells the scent of the rose smells the scent of Muhammad’.

Sophistication and Sensuality: the Sultan’s Favourite Skin Softener

At the centre of India lies Madhya Pradesh, a state known for flourishing flower fields, majestic temple ruins scattered across its land and - in particular - for having been the beloved home of the 15th-century Malwa Sultan, Ghiyath Shah

Stories of sultans invariably conjure images of gorgeously decorated palaces, lavish fabrics and banquets of indulgent dishes. The associated imagery rings especially true to the life of Shah who, in 1569, left the running of the state to his son so he could instead divert his attention to something considerably less burdensome - an exploration of earthly pleasures. 

The sultan documented his experiences in what became known as Nimatnama, or The Book of Delights. Though often regarded as a book of recipes for delectable dishes, the sultan’s anecdotes were not limited to culinary sensations. 

Shah was fascinated by the power of fragrance, particularly that of rose water, to elicit pleasure. Olfactory sensations are central to the themes of The Book of Delights with its elaborate instructions on how to use perfumes.[7]

Drawing from the art of perfumery traditional to both Arabia and India, the sultan would bathe his female slaves in rose water - the liquid with which he also used to wash and soften his hands.

As the use of perfume became a sign of civilized life in 15th century Malwa, a generous application of rose water came to symbolize ultimate sophistication and sensuality. 

The Lasting Relevance of Rose Water Ittar to Indian Culture

That scents have played such an important part in India’s culture is well understood. From the aromatic flavours of chai tea to the Indian vetiver used in Guerlain perfumes, India’s influence on the art of perfume making is evident to this day.

Ittar is the word Indians use to describe essential oil from botanical sources. Rose water ittar is not only used for perfumes but also for religious ceremonies across India. At weddings, for example, sprinkles of rose water are thrown at the bride and groom for good luck. 

India’s rose water business was once so precise and so competitive that distillers would only collect fresh heaps of rose petals directly after dawn as this was when the rose’s fragrance was at its strongest.

A more globalized world of mass-manufacturing eventually led to cheap and fast ways of producing artificially rose-scented cosmetics. The tradition of using natural perfumes has diminished somewhat as India’s younger generation are buying synthetic products from international brands.

A revival of rose water’s popularity in India is, nonetheless, believed by many beauty experts to be underway. 

Renaissance Roses: How Rose Water Impacted European Beautification

Rose water made its mark in Europe, too. By the late 1400s many prominent figures of the Renaissance era were known to drink rose water or use it in skin treatment.

Most notably Michelangelo mixed pure rose water into his daily cup of tea. Elsewhere in Europe rose water became regarded as a staple of high-class society.

The rose became entrenched as a symbol of royalty in British society from the ‘War of the Roses’, a rivalry to the throne of England fought between the House of York, represented by a White Rose, and the House of Lancaster, represented by a Red Rose.

As Kings and Queens were believed to be appointed by God, the roses also came to represent a fight for divinity and righteousness.

By England’s mid-Victorian era rose water was commonly used in beauty routines - particularly as a key ingredient in facial cosmetics. Housekeeping books of this time regularly featured moisturizing cream and soap recipes that required distilled floral water. 

In the 1879 book Our Deportment, John H. Young details the daily lives of 1870s Western society including health and beauty practices that were prevalent in Great Britain and the US. He noted that remedies thought to remove freckles, wrinkles, blemishes and sunburn were typically made from floral waters - elderflower and rose among the most popular.

Poets and playwrights of Great Britain started using roses as a literary device in their writings around this time. The prevalence of the rose metaphor in classic British literature is especially clear when looking at the romantic works of Shakespeare, John Keats and William Blake.

The soft and fragrant rose was so popular in Britain that ‘English Rose’ became a flattering term with which to describe English woman of great beauty. It’s an epithet that has survived to this day, commonly attributed to women such as Kiera Knightley, Emma Watson and Kate Middleton, as it denotes classical beauty and a fair complexion.

In the era preceding the Russian Revolution, the ruling Romanov Dynasty were known to love a good floral display. Tsar Alexander III’s prestigious parties were famous for enormous banquets of sublime blossoms and the Winter Palace itself was filled to the brim with the favourite flowers of his wife, Maria Feodorovna.  As a romantic gift, Alexander III planted Maria a rose garden directly outside her bedroom window.[8] 

Alexandra, wife of Nicholas II, was equally enchanted by roses. She regularly gave flowers as gifts and would have her personal florist compile information about each flower in a decorative card that went alongside the bouquet. The Atkinson White Rose was known to be her favourite variant - plucked straight from the enormous greenhouse at Alexander Palace.

The Native Americans and the Story Behind a Rose’s Thorns

Roses grew in abundance along Native American lands, unsurprisingly becoming central to many myths and legends. One particularly charming Native American tale tells the story of how the rose got its thorns.

According to the story, roses didn’t always have thorns - once upon a time they were perfectly smooth. They were, however, scrumptiously fragrant and delicious to eat. Every day, rabbits would nibble at the petals and leaves until eventually there were only a few rose bushes left in the whole world.

The roses realized they needed to save themselves and decided to seek the help of a powerful but ill-tempered man called Nanahboozhoo. When they finally found him they noticed he was in a fit of rage and dared not approach. As they listened to his cries, however, the reason for his anger became apparent. Nanahboozhoo loved tending to his garden but he had recently returned to find his favourite plants eaten by rabbits. 

The rose bushes approached Nanahboozhoo and told him of their problem, knowing that he could sympathize. Listening attentively, Nanahboozhoo felt sorry for the rose bushes and knew he had to do something to help them. Using his magic he gave the rose bushes thorns along their branches and stems.

A respect for nature is deeply rooted in Native American culture; a fact reflected in this story about how roses have survived to present day, thorns and all.

Health and Culinary Customs from Ancient Asia

Throughout many parts of Asia the practice of applying perfumed lotions and waters to skin never quite took off like it did elsewhere in the ancient world.

In China the focus was more on fragrancing a room or environment as opposed to the body. Essential oils and
and floral waters were more commonly used for medicinal purposes, such as disinfection and purification. Instead, incense was considered ideal for creating pleasant aromas.

That being said it is documented that nobles in Ancient China would sometimes carry little ‘perfume pouches’ containing fragrant woods, herbs and petals. Rose water was sometimes consumed as a detoxifying drink or else used in ointments and cosmetics for skin treatment.

In modern day Asia, particularly Japan, rose water is becoming an increasingly common ingredient in drinks and food. You can often find it as a flavouring in aloe vera juices and milk-based drinks and in the artisan jelly-based blossom desserts typical of Japanese culture.

Africa’s Blossoming Business: The Beautiful Roses of Kenya

Fragrance and floral traditions vary greatly across the different parts of Africa but the art of perfumery and an appreciation for flowers is present in almost every region of the continent.

Today, the floriculture industry that was once dominated by Great Britain and the Netherlands has been taken over by African countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya - the latter of which recently became the third largest exporter of roses in the entire world. [9]

If you’ve given or received roses within the last five years there’s a huge chance that they came from Kenya. Even the distilled rose water you purchase might have been made with the high quality flowers from the country’s famous rose farms.

Kenyan roses are such great quality because the country’s sunny climate allows for the growth of rich, long-lasting roses all year-round. But it’s also thanks to a strong transport link to Europe which helps make for straight-forward trade.

Rose farming has existed in Kenya for decades, and the boom in business from Europe has been great news for the native families who rely on floriculture. 

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Widely grown and distilled across all continents, roses and rose water have been used to nourish and fragrance our skin for centuries.

Enticingly scented, distinctively flavoured and medicinally marvellous – it’s the most beloved flower in all of history and is as captivating to the eyes as it is healing to the soul.

We recommend using a light body spray for the full benefits of rose water on skin or when freshening up. A light mist over your face, body or clothes will leave a subtle scent and soften your skin.

Regardless of how you choose to use rose water, it’s difficult to go wrong with the essence of a flower that has influenced the way we think about romance, health, beauty and luxury for thousands upon thousands of years.

Sources:

[1] A Prickly Rose Who Loved A Starry Prince; A Voice From the Past Upsets The Saint-Exupery Legend, New York Times, 2000

[2] Expert’s Top 10: A Flawless Complexion with Celebrity Makeup Artist Kara Yoshimoto Bua, InStyle, 2013

[3] The Common People of Ancient Egypt 3000 BC - 1070 BC, The History of Skin Care

[4] The Romans: When Fountains Flowed with Rosewater, The Perfume Society

[5] The Rose: A Flower with Deep Roots in Turkish Culture, Daily Sabah, 2015

[6] Perfume and Perfumery Manufacturing in Ancient Iran, Iran Review, 2013

[7] Scents and Sensuality, 1843 Magazine, 2017

[8] A Romanov Passion for Flowers, Alexander Palace

[9] Roses and Kenya, CNN, 2015