Against Sunburn

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At last year’s Virtual Athenaeum I shared my research in some pre-1600 European medicines and how they were made and used. Here are two more of my research projects.

Ointment for Sunburn

The book commonly called “The Trotula” is somewhat of a mystery – most often it is attributed to a female physician teaching in Salerno, Italy in the late 11th/early 12th century, but there is disagreement about whether that is an accurate attribution. We do know that De passionibus mulierum was the most popular book on women’s medicine in Europe for several centuries; it was written in Latin and translated into a number of other languages.

I have recreated her sunscreen/sunburn ointment with slight variation to avoid using toxic substances.

The Original Recipe

“An ointment that the Salernitan women make that is very good for sunburn and fissures of any kind…. Take one ounce of lily root, two ounces of white lead, mastic and frankincense of each half a dram, one dram of camphor, one ounce of animal grease, and rose water as needed. Let it be prepared thus: let the lily root, having been cleaned, be cooked in water, and once this is extracted we grind it thoroughly. And we pour in the fat, which has been liquified on the fire and well strained and cleaned of its salt in order to dissolve it. Then we put in the white lead, which has been dissolved in rose water and somewhat pulverized. And note that this ointment is good for both the treatment of the above-mentioned conditions and for their prevention.”

“Against sunburn. Take the root of domesticated lily, cleaned and cooked in water; pound it vigerously. Then take one ounce each of mastic powder and frankincense, two scruples each of camphor and white lead, pork grease with which it should be prepared, and let it be prepared likewise with rose water, and keep it for later use. It is prepared thus. We clean the lily root and we cook it with water. Having cooked it, we pound it vigorously, and we pour on fat liquefied on the fire and cleaned of salt and mixed. Then we place the above-mentioned powder in rose water. And it ought to be noted that this is good against sunburn and fissures of the lips and any kind of pustules on the face, and for excoriations and for preventing them.”

Making Sunburn Ointment

Trutola gives these two similar recipes for an ointment that could be used to prevent sunburn and also to soothe the face after getting sunburned. I chose to recreate the first version of the recipe as I expect it to be better at preventing sunburn than the second recipe due to the much higher concentration of white lead to provide thicker coverage. I did, however, substitute zinc oxide for white lead – it has some similar physical properties without being toxic.

I was able to obtain dried lily root from an Asian grocery store. It is eaten as a root vegetable and also used in Chinese medicine for various ailments. Once boiled and mashed, the roots had a consistency similar to the inside of a slightly over-baked potato.

The recipe isn’t clear on when the frankincense, mastic, and camphor are added. I mixed the resins with the powdered zinc oxide and dissolved all of the powders in a mix of rosewater and camphor to create a paste.

The final step was to incorporate the animal grease – I used tallow. This gave the ointment a very stiff consistency.

The final product.

Testing the Ointment

When I applied some to my face I discovered that a very little goes a very long way. Body heat melts the oils just enough to allow for smooth spreading.

Ointment applied to half my face for shade comparison.

To test the efficacy of the ointment at preventing sunburn I applied it to one arm before spending about 6 hours in direct sun. Pictured: left arm with sunscreen, right arm without suncreen.

Testing the ointment after sunburn, 18 hours after application: ointment only on the right side

To test the ointment as a treatment after sunburn has occurred, I tested it on half of my husband’s back. He reported that the ointment felt cooling and soothing. There was very little noticeable difference in the color of his sunburn the next day and he reported that the side with the ointment felt a little itchy. A second application made the itch go away and had the same cooling effect.

I thought it worked pretty well to protect me from sunburn and it smelled good in spite of the tallow. The strongest scent was the frankincense. It doesn’t seem to do much to promote healing of existing sunburn but it does have a soothing effect. This should also work as a natural insect repellent due to the camphor.

Sweet Oil of Vitriol – Making a 16th Century Sedative
(Project in Progress)

Sweet oil of vitriol was the 15th-16th century name for ether – an extremely effective inhalant sedative. Use of ether became far more common in the 19th century during surgery. The method of producing sweet oil of vitriol was published by Valerius Cordus in 1544 but it did not gain popularity as a sedative until centuries after his death for reasons I am not certain of.

Oil of Vitriol

The first ingredient of ether is sulfuric acid. This substance was first written about in the 13th century by an alchemist known as Geber, who took the anglicized name of an older Arab alchemist in order to give weight to his text. The consensus among modern authors is that Pseudo-Geber was the first to publish instructions on how to manufacture oil of vitriol; however I have been unable to find these instructions in the translation of Pseudo-Geber, which may be due to my lack of familiarity with alchemical terms. Vitriol can be made from several minerals: Blue, or roman, vitriol is composed of cupric sulfate; green vitriol—also called copperas – is ferrous sulfate; white vitriol is zinc sulfate; red, or rose, vitriol is cobalt sulfate. If any of these minerals is sufficiently heated, it will break down into water and sulfuric acid, plus solids of whichever element was bound to the sulfur. Pseudo-Geber gives instructions on how to purify dry minerals into their essence (mineral acid) and the “earthen” portions of the chemical.

For this project I used cupric (copper) sulphate, as the mineral is readily available because it is modernly used to clear sewer systems. *Note: I have not yet been able to do this as I am waiting on the proper alembic.

Creating Sulfuric Acid

Pseudo-Geber gave instructions on how to remove the “spririts” of a dry material – this involved a carefully-maintained fire in an oven, with the dry material in an alembic. He explained that this process removed the “earthen” elements from the material and what was distilled out was the perfected essence.

Distilled Wine

Cordus calls for “the most biting, fiery and triply-distilled wine” to be mixed with the oil of vitriol. I started by distilling some home-brewed blackberry wine but realized that I would have to use a large amount of wine to get a small amount of ethanol, and I would rather drink my homebrew. I switched to cheap commercial grape wine for the rest of the experiment. I used an oil lamp to heat a copper alembic full of wine – copper has long been a favored material for distilling alcohol; it is easy to work, cheap to produce, and easily handles the relatively low temperatures needed to vaporize ethanol.

Ether is comprised of sulfuric acid and ethanol, so distilling wine to create a concentrated liquor would be more efficient for the next stage of the process.

Distilling Ether

It is my plan to build a small brick oven similar to the one illustrated by Cordus and use that to first distill copper sulphate into sulfuric acid, and then to distill the ether, per Cordus’ instructions. This first calls for sweet oil of vitriol to be combined with triple-distilled wine and let sit for one month, after which the mixture is distilled over a fire until an oily substance is extracted. *I am currently waiting for my custom alembic to be made so I can do this step*

Modern Concerns with Ether

Ether did not catch on as a popular anesthetic until the 1840s, perhaps because, while it is shelf-stable when sealed, when it is exposed to oxygen and high heat, it explodes. This makes it a dangerous material to use near flame or in the heat of summer. This does not, however, explain why it suddenly became extremely popular in the 19th century when the same variables would be in play. The benefit of ether as a surgical sedative compared to the herbal options used in period is considerable. With ether, the difference between an effective clinical dose and the lethal dose is large, meaning that accidental overdose is unlikely. Only a handful of instances of lethal dose have ever been reported. Ether immediately begins to exit the body once a person stops actively inhaling it, with all traces gone from the body within eight hours. It has a small short-term effect on the liver and kidneys, which process out a small amount of ether metabolites, but the toxicity of said metabolites is minimal. The majority of the ether a person inhales is immediately exhaled. Ether also acts as a bronchiodilater, so it can be used as a emergency rescue inhaler for people with severe asthma.

Safety Concerns

The main safety concern with ether is the high heat necessary to distill both the dry copper sulfate and the ether itself. Care should be taken not to expose distilled ether to high heat as it can explode with oxygen and heat. Inhaling ether can cause death in very high doses over a long period of time.

Please visit my exhibit at last year’s Virtual Athenaeum:


  • Alchemy and chemistry in medieval Islam. Islam Wiki. (n.d.).
  • Arvidson, B. (1993). NEG and NIOSH basis for an occupational health standard: Ethyl Ether.
  • Bause, G. S. (2020). Valerius Cordus Synthesizes Sulfuric Ether. Definitions.
  • Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Vitriol. Encyclopædia Britannica.
  • Geber, Newman, W. R., & Geber. (1991). The Summa perfectionis of Pseudo-Geber: a critical edition, translation and study. E.J. Brill
  • Green, M. H. (2002). The Trotula: an English traslation of the medieval compendium of women’s medicine. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Group, I. G. A. R. (n.d.). INNER GARDEN. Alchemical Vitriol – preparation according to Hollandus.
  • Guthriestewart, & Guthriestewart. (2013, December 10). The invention and manufacture of mineral acids in medieval Europe. distillatio.
  • History of Anesthesia. Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology. (2020, December 2).
  • Karpenko, V., & Norris, J. A. (n.d.). Vitriol in the History of Chemistry.
  • Robinson, T. (1959). On the Nature of Sweet Oil of Vitriol. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, XIV(4), 235–237.
  • Trotula of Salerno. (n.d.).
  • Weights. Weights – The University of Nottingham. (n.d.).
  • Banner image from Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry Folio 6, verso: June

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17 Replies to “Against Sunburn”

  1. I love your research into alchemy and remedies/medicines. I have a UV sensor and now want to help you test your sunscreen (if you are interested)! You also just sent me down a major rabbit hole into the UV properties of white lead. Thank you so much for this informative presentation!

    1. This is my first foray into alchemy, I came at the project from the medical side. I mistakenly thought that because the process of distillation is simple that this project would be simple – and it would be if I didn’t try to understand the period alchemical text 🙂

  2. I’m really impressed at how you’ve pulled all this together and you’ve done it with such a clear and interesting way. Great work!

    Question: Is the dried lily, Orris Root, (used to be called Iris florentina)

    1. I don’t read enough Mandarin to tell you which specific species it is, the package just says “lily bulb”. It seems to fit the bill since it is eaten as a vegetable and used in Chinese medicine.

  3. I am fascinated by your ether project. I’m wondering if the stability of storing ether was reliant on the development of rubber stoppers. Because cork would not be truly airtight unless kept damp….
    I really hope you continue on with this project, because I can see it dovetailing to your medical research so well!

  4. Love this! 😉
    Have you experimented with different fats? I have tried ‘pig fat’ ‘goose fat’ and butter, as recommended in some texts, but I suspect tallow would make a smoother salve and not go rancid as quickly 😉 Nice work!
    I have not looked much into ether, as I did not realize how early it went (17th C is as early as I was aware) so I learned some things! Thank You

    1. I just tried it with coconut oil – not period but I was curious how the texture would work since I will probably start using this at events. The lighter oil gives it a very smooth texture but the coconut smell is stronger than I anticipated. Tallow works very nicely and there is no hint of the fat going bad after 5 weeks.

  5. Wow! Very interesting! Great use of original recipes with understandable substitutions (I appreciate that you did not poison yourself in the name of Science). I couldn’t see much difference in skin tone in the photo of your arms. Was there a noticeable protection from reddening/tanning?

    1. In person you can see a noticeable difference, the arm without sunscreen has more color. Weirdly, that one day my skin decided *not* to burn so the picture wasn’t as dramatic as I had hoped for.

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