How “Milky” Beauty Got So Big — & If It’s Actually Good For The Skin

A look at the industry's obsession with all things milk.

by Jessica DeFino

In 2016, Glossier launched Milky Jelly Cleanser. Later, Milk Makeup came along with its own Vegan Milk Cleanser and Vegan Milk Moisturizer. Today, there’s Moon Juice Milk Cleanse and DedCool Milk Eau de Parfum and CoverGirl Skin Milk Foundation — bottles and bottles of milky beauty products, delivered to customers’ doorsteps by the dozen. Surely enough to ask, what’s with all the milk? It’s kind of a long story, and it starts 4,519 years ago.

“The earliest mentions of milk as a beauty treatment are in Egyptian sculptures from 2,500 B.C.,” Gabriela Hernandez, makeup historian and founder of Besame Cosmetics, tells NYLON. “In 1372 B.C., Nefertiti used it in face masks made from ostrich eggs beaten with milk and honey. Cleopatra also used donkey milk to keep her skin soft.” The Egyptians saw that milk made for smoother, brighter skin — even if they didn’t know exactly why.

The Middle Eastern beauty secret eventually made its way to Greece. The Greeks used donkey milk in baths and face masks; sometimes mixing it with mashed berries or honey as “anti-aging treatments,” Hernandez says. European Kings and nobles bathed in donkey milk throughout the Middle Ages and beyond to “maintain health and beautify the skin.” Non-nobles would occasionally use goat milk since goats were cheaper to maintain — otherwise, “donkey milk was such a commodity that nobles would use the milk, and then sell it to lower classes for them to use, either for bathing, cooking, or making cheese,” according to the historian. Yes, you read that right: People would purchase other people’s used bath milk and use it again.

Thanks to the miracle of modern science, today’s experts can confirm what all those second-hand donkey milk bathers knew to be true: Milk was (and still is) that good for the skin.

The Skin Care Benefits Of Milk

“Animal milks contain a lot of vitamins, minerals, proteins, and alpha-hydroxy acids that can work to help hydrate and smooth the skin,” Ron Robinson, cosmetic chemist and founder of BeautyStat Cosmetics, says. The chemical composition varies depending on the origin of the milk — donkey, goat, camel, cow, or other — but all of the above offer hydration, exfoliation, and brightening power.

“Donkey milk has more vitamin C than cow’s milk, which could lead it to have antioxidant properties when applied to the skin,” says Dr. Devika Icecreamwala, a board-certified dermatologist with Icecreamwala Dermatology. (Essentially, Cleopatra was covering herself in nature’s vitamin C serum.) Goat milk contains “saturated and unsaturated fats that provide moisturization for the skin,” the dermatologist adds, as well as vitamin A. (Nature’s barrier-friendly retinol, if you will.) Both contain a small amount of lactic acid, which “increases cell turnover, leading to brighter appearing skin.” (The original Babyfacial, anyone?)

No wonder the beauty industry continued to, ahem, milk the ingredient for all it was worth.

Modern, manufactured face and body creams — crémes, if you’re fancy — entered the space in the 1800s, taking inspiration from the creamy cosmetics of decades past. “In the 1900s, milk was used in massage and ‘rolling’ creams,” Hernandez says. “These creams used the casein from the milk to emulsify the oil and water in the mixture. ‘Complexion milks’ were made in the 1930s and marketed for smoothing skin, closing pores, and erasing lines.”

The Rise of Vegan Milk Alternatives

By mid-century, though, actual cream had lost some of its caché. “The concept of vegan beauty started in the 1960s with the beatnik and flower children groups,” Hernandez says. “The concept was a movement against government and authority that sought to go back to nature and natural practices, including living off the land and using products made from the earth.” Of course, many beauty brands did and still do use real milk — see: Kate Somerville Goat Milk Moisturizing Cream, Beekman 1802 Triple Milk Retinol Bar, Korres Donkey Milk Miracle Serum — but the meaning of “milk” was forever changed.

“The same way many people are looking for dairy milk alternatives in their foods, beauty manufacturers have begun using non-dairy based milks in skin care,” Robinson says. “Brands are instead using plant-based milks, including those from nuts, seeds, and grains.” Milk Makeup features fig, oat, and argan milks in its Vegan Milk line; Erborian’s Milk & Peel Cleansing Balm relies on sesame seed milk. “It’s a nourishing vegetal milk that helps mildly exfoliate thanks to sesame seed enzymes, creating a formula that gently and visibly smooths and enhances the complexion,” says Miranda Fogel, Erborian’s Director of Communications.

As anyone who’s sipped an oat milk latte knows, vegan milk is every bit as lovely as dairy milk (minus the lactic acid, plus exfoliating enzymes). But here’s the thing: Almost none of the “milky” beauty on the market today contains any kind of milk at all — dairy, vegan, or otherwise.

Got Milk? Or Got Mylk?

“Some brands take the liberty of calling their products ‘Milk’ or ‘Milky’ if they resemble the look of real milk, with a white, watery, semi-translucent look,” Robinson explains.

It makes sense: Bolstered by the iconic “Got Milk?” ads of the 1990s, milk has maintained an almost-impeccable reputation over the past four centuries. It brings to mind essential nutrients; the life-giving power of “mother’s milk.” It’s thought of as equal parts effective and luxurious — I mean, it was good enough for Cleopatra, a literal Queen of renowned beauty, right? Milk is natural, wholesome, healthy. “It’s associated with youth, since that is what we drink as babies and children,” Hernandez points out, “and youth will always be an attractive concept in beauty.” The brand equity built up in the word “milk” is enough to evoke all of the above… even if the headlining ingredient is missing.

In the case of Moon Juice Milk Cleanse, a milk-esque effect is achieved with coconut water, oil extracts, and emulsifiers. “It’s milky in color, creamy in texture, and leaves skin nourished and soft as you might expect milk on skin to do,” says Moon Juice founder Amanda Chantal Bacon. For Glossier Milky Jelly and Milky Oil, the “milk” in question is pumped full of PEGs and plastic-like polymers, among other ingredients. CoverGirl Skin Milk Foundation doesn’t look or feel like milk at all — it just cashes in on the connotation.

“The word ‘milk’ is usually used to describe products that are calming and gentle,” offers Priscilla Tsai, founder of clean beauty brand Cocokind. The company’s non-milk Oil to Milk Cleanser is exactly that. Deven Hopp, the Brand and Education Director of Versed, tells NYLON that Versed landed on the product name Baby Cheeks All In One Hydrating Milk because “milk calls to mind adjectives like nourishing and soothing — essentially, all the things you want out of a hydrating product.” The brand is vegan, so its own “milk” is actually coconut water.

“For a lot of people, there's a nostalgia factor with milk,” Hopp adds. “It evokes memories of simpler times and may even take you back to your grandmother's home remedy for soothing burns with a milk-soaked cold compress.” She puts it perfectly: Today’s beauty au lait (beauty faux lait?) is merely meant to make you feel.

That’s not to say that milk-free “milk” products won’t be wonderful for your face, too. The majority of them do prioritize calming, soothing, skin-loving ingredients; it’s just that milk isn’t one of them.

If you’re curious about the real thing — the vitamins and nutrients at the heart of milk’s enduring appeal, the ingredient that inspired all this milk-less milky beauty — may I suggest ordering a pouch of powdered camel milk or a canister of powdered goat milk? Sprinkle it into your next bath. Mix it with water, or honey, or mashed berries. Slather it on your skin. See what all the hype is about. (Nefertiti knew what she was doing.)