The History of Cosmetics

The History of Cosmetics – A Vanity Fair
by Arden Mellor

the history of cosmetics

Are we really a vain society? Do we really have a more-than-normal pride in our appearance? To answer that, you’d have to define normal. There’s nothing wrong with being vain, as long as we don’t get carried away with it. We just want to look good – to look our best. And people have been working hard at looking their best for centuries. And that’s why cosmetics has such a long history. We’d like to take you through the history of cosmetics here; and let’s just see how similar we are to people living in 10,000 BC.

Ancient Egyptians had a full line of cosmetics

Have you ever seen pictures of the Ancient Egyptians, with their painted faces? They look very striking, don’t they? Very classic. And that was the intent. It was extremely important to them that they looked and smelled good, because the old expression “cleanliness is next to Godliness” is that old – they believed it very strongly.

The Egyptians were very spiritual people, and believed their appearance was directly related to their level of spirituality. And so they needed to find ways to make themselves look at least presentable, if not fabulous.

The Egyptians were also very resourceful people. Some of the things they came up with were very innovative, even by today’s standards. And cosmetics was one of those things. They had a knack for developing natural formulas to solve their skin challenges. Would you believe that around the fifteenth to the tenth centuries BC, they had cosmetic products that would get rid of stretch marks, shrink wrinkles, get rid of scars, and make hair grow?

That’s amazing, when you look at the line of products that’ll do those same jobs today. And today, we seem to need all kinds of research and development programs to come up with the same thing. Perhaps there’s something to be said for natural cosmetics after all.

Some of the other cosmetics the Ancient Egyptians used were eye makeup, face creams and body oils, as well as a wide array of perfumes and fragrances.

The Egyptians really knew how to mix ingredients All these cosmetics that the Egyptians used had to come from somewhere. Well, it’s the old story of “necessity is the mother of invention”. Because there was so much emphasis on looking good, Egyptian women had to find a way to do it. And one of the things they came up with was something called mesdemet.

Mesdemet was made of copper and lead ore – not the safest thing to be constantly putting on your face, but it did the job. They applied green to their lower eyelids, then black or dark gray to their eyelashes and upper eyelids. And keeping with their spiritual beliefs, the dark colors were designed not only to enhance their appearance, but to ward off evil eyes.

Egyptian Cosmetics

And an evil eye wasn’t the only thing mesdemet warded off. It was a great disinfectant, as well as an insect repellant. And with life on the Nile being fairly filled with annoying insects, the eye makeup performed a dual purpose. So the combinations of ingredients that made up their cosmetics, were very diverse. In fact, many were used for all kinds of medicinal purposes, too.

Now how’s this for a combination: burnt almonds, oxidized copper, a couple of different-colored copper ores, lead, ash, and ochre. They called it kohl, and it came out as a dark-colored powder, which was applied with a small stick, on and around the eyes, in an almond shape. Then, to complement the fancy eye makeup, they applied a mixture of red clay and water to their lips and cheeks. And the nails weren’t left out, either. They used henna to dye them orange or yellow. Quite a colorful picture, don’t you think? But that’s exactly what they wanted back then – something like today, perhaps?

And the Egyptians weren’t good at just putting together natural products. Some research done by L’Oreal, along with scientists from the Louvre in Paris, revealed that the black eye makeup used back then had ingredients that had to have been chemically made, because a natural origin couldn’t be found. The research also showed that mesdemet got its creamy smoothness from its 7-10% fat content. That’s just the same as many of the eye cosmetic products on the market today. Are we really advanced, or just living in the past?

The purpose of cosmetics hasn’t really changed over the years Way back – I mean, way back – like in 10,000 BC, cosmetics were used to enhance the beauty of the female countenance. And by the way, men used them, too. Back then, all Egyptians bathed either in the river or from a basin at home. They used cosmetic cleansers made from vegetable or animal oil mixed with powdered lime and perfume – probably not much different from some of the soaps we use today.

Also, the air was very hot and dry in those days and the people needed something to keep their skin soft. So they used one of a number of perfumed oils to protect themselves from the climate.

As time progressed, through invasions and migrations, cultures merged, and that had a profound effect on the value of cosmetics. Remember, the Egyptians held a strong connection between their cosmetic makeup and their spirituality. However, when the much more liberal Greeks moved in, ideas about cosmetics changed. The actual use of cosmetics didn’t decrease at all, but their connection with spirituality did.

The Greeks use of cosmetics was predominantly – well, cosmetic. They were still interested in looking good, but not for the gods – for each other. So they adopted the Egyptian cosmetic practices and products.

But then, centuries later, the Romans moved in, with their life of frivolity and debauchery. The Egyptians’ cosmetic formulas were used for even less spiritual purposes, like aphrodisiacs. However, vanity was still an issue, so cosmetics still had a place on the face – and on the rest of the body, too. It was said by one Roman, a man named Platus, that “a woman without paint is like food without salt.”

The Romans’ lifestyle definitely had no boundaries, and that included the source of their cosmetics. For example, they used fat from a sheep, mixed with blood, for nail polish. And they left no doubt as to their priorities in life when they took baths in mud, mixed with crocodile excrement. Yuck!

The pale face was the norm for centuries Through many centuries, a pale face was the desired look because it defined your place in society. It was recognized that those who worked in the fields had tanned and rugged skin. They were the working class, not to be associated with the upper refined class, who had white skin. Those with pale skin were the ones who had enough money that they didn’t need to work.

And to achieve that look, women and men used a powder made of hydroxide, carbonate, and lead oxide. Unfortunately, there was a price to pay for looking “proper” – lead poisoning. That’s why an alternative was sought. And they found it, in the 19th century – a facial powder made of zinc oxide. And that’s what they still use today.

As the cosmetic industry moved into Hollywood in the 20th century, the white face look was gradually replaced by the tanned look. And that became the source of a whole new line of cosmetic products – artificial tanners. In 1929, there were ads running for tanning liquid and powder. If you couldn’t get a tan naturally, then you could still have bronze skin with tanning aids.

Cosmetics are used for that younger look During the Edwardian society days, around 1900, middle-aged women did a lot of entertaining. And as hostesses, they had to look their best, which to them, meant looking as young as possible. These society women needed all the help they could get to offset the effects of their high lifestyles. They didn’t eat very healthy foods, and they didn’t exercise, plus the air pollution was heavy at that time. To “preserve their youth” and make up for their extravagant lifestyles, Edwardian women relied on cosmetics, especially face creams and anti-ageing products.

Another way women got themselves to look naturally young and attractive was to go to the beauty salon. One of the most famous of those salons was the House of Cyclax in London. Because the women didn’t want people to know that they needed help to look beautiful, they sneaked in the back door of the salon. Their carriages would pull up in the laneway, they’d quickly hop out, wearing a veil to hide their complexions, and scurry in the back door.

Papier Poudre / Cleanses and Powders

Mrs. Henning, the owner of the House of Cyclax, discreetly sold face creams and rouge to the ladies. One of her products, papier poudre, was a colored-powdered paper that the women pressed on their faces to remove the shine. The pieces of paper came in books, and you can still buy them today. As well as the papier poudre, the women used the charcoal on the end of burned matches for mascara, and flower petals for lipstick. Now those are natural cosmetics!

Another beauty salon owner, Helena Rubinstein, found herself very busy with her upper-class clients. Women with disposable income were willing to spend a lot of money on their appearance. Helena Rubinstein started out with a face cream that protected the women from the sun, and later added lipstick and face powder. Today, there’s a full line of cosmetics available from Helena Rubinstein.

The cosmetics industry takes off in the 20th century As the popularity of beauty salons increased, in the beginning of the 20th century, the cosmetics industry became established – and it’s never looked back. Starting with a salon called Selfridges, which opened in 1909 in London, cosmetics were no longer hidden under the counter, but were sold on the open market. Women became more confident, and didn’t worry as much about what others thought – as long as they looked good.

If you can think of makeup application as an art, then perhaps you’ll understand that one of the biggest influences on the cosmetic industry was actually the performing arts – ballet, to be specific. When the Russian Ballet came to London, a designer named Paul Poiret took the Russian style and created a whole new look – a much more colorful look. And that look was reflected in cosmetics, not just clothing.

Now those society hostesses didn’t have to make all those trips to the beauty salon. They now had permanent cosmetics at their disposal. They could have their lips, cheeks and eyebrows tattooed, with vivid color that didn’t fade and didn’t have to be replaced. Permanent cosmetics are fairly popular today, too.

As the years wore on, cosmetic use came and went. During the 1930s, lipstick was dark red, with an ever-changing array of shades. But that was bad news for the philanderers – the dark lipstick left a distinct stain, and many wives were looking for explanations for the “lipstick on the collar”. At the same time, fingernails followed suit with the lipstick, with their dark crimson colors. But that was contrasted by the lighter pink of the toenails.

Around World War II, the use of cosmetics dwindled a bit because of shortages of ingredients to make them. But as soon as the war was over, people started spending money again. Now women could buy all the makeup they wanted. And the competition was heating up, too.

The cosmetics industry becomes the foundation of fashion Throughout the last few decades, women’s choices of cosmetics greatly increased. There were many companies selling many kinds of makeup. Cosmetics now included eye makeup, like mascara, eye shadow and eye liner; facial cleansing systems, including cleanser, toner and moisturizer; nail polish, every color and design you can think of; lotions, lipsticks, skincare products, powders – the list goes on and on. Perhaps that’s why cosmetics is a multi-billion dollar industry today.

There are so many players in the cosmetics game now, like Bren, Estee Lauder, Dior, Maybelline, Mac Cosmetics, Clinique, L’Oreal, Bobbi Brown cosmetics, Victoria Jackson cosmetics – everybody’s getting into the picture with their own lines.

And the winner of this cosmetic game is you, the consumer. Whatever type of look you want, whether it’s to cover up, emphasize, illuminate, minimize, enhance or perfect – any look you want can be had with the help of today’s cosmetics.

Cosmetics are products that sell, even when there’s a recession. Women will always find the money for their makeup. And the men don’t mind. After all, they’re the ones who benefit from those good looks. They’re the ones who’ve appreciated the efforts that women have gone to throughout the years, to make themselves “presentable”.

So, men, look back and thank the ancient Egyptians for their sometimes “weird” formulas they used to enhance the beauty of their women. Many of their ideas have lived through the ages. And now you get to enjoy those ideas as they’ve culminated into the cosmetics of today. And all you can do is greet your special lady, with her perfectly-applied cosmetics, and say, “Wow!”

About the Author:

Arden Mellor is a successful home based freelance writer, one of experience and diversity. The knowledge brought to you through Arden's articles has been designed for simplicity. The world is much too complicated, and Arden’s contribution to the world is to bring the complexities of life into a simpler arena, one that anyone and everyone can understand and use.

This article on the "History of Cosmetics" reprinted with permission.

ochre - an earthy pigment containing ferric oxide, typically with clay, varying from light yellow to brown or red.