While some people assume that cosmetic products are a recent invention, discoveries of the use of cosmetics go back thousands of years. Remains of palettes estimated to be around 100.000 years old have been discovered that contain traces of mixed pigments.
These were most likely used for cave art and body decoration, while the Neanderthals even used body adornment to make statements of personality. Much later on, the ancient Egyptians used scented oils and ointments to clean and soften their skin, protect it from the sun and wind, and even to mask body odours.
Heavy make-up around the eyes also became common in ancient Egypt as a beauty statement, as well as to offer protection from evil spirits and improve eye-sight!
Discoveries show that people living in present-day
Turkey used creams made of animal fat to soothe the skin as far back as 3000 BC, and the ancient Greeks applied white toxic lead to their face to obtain the pale look that was all-the-rage. The Greeks also painted their lips with a paste made of iron oxide or ochre mixed with olive oil, and used kohl for eye shadow and to connect the eyebrows (the unibrow was considered a beautiful feature!).
Still back in ancient times
Chinese people stained their fingernails with colours to represent a social class. Soon after, they began using rouge for lips and rice powder to make their faces white. Also the ancient Romans made their skin paler by using chalk powder, white lead and a cream made of animal fat, starch and tin oxide. Moving into the first millennium AD, henna became popular as hair dye and for painting complex designs on hands and feet around 300-400 AD in parts of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and South Asia.
Even the sea-faring Vikings were at it!
Both men and women used make-up, such as kohl for the eyes, while much attention was paid to grooming of hair and beards and weekly bathing, which was unusual at the time. In the Middle Ages, cosmetics usage spread across Europe, to the chagrin of the church. Pale skin was still deemed attractive, so lead, chalk or flour was employed.
Some people would even engage in bloodletting in the hope of lightening their skin. Lipstick and rouge were seen as reserved for women of “bad character” such as prostitutes, and church officials were known to proclaim that cosmetics were only used by heathens and Satan worshippers!
Elizabeth I of England
Famous for her red hair and pale beauty, which she obtained by using white lead and vinegar. Many women made tremendous efforts to look like her, using hair dye to attain the same hair colour as her. Soon after, the aristocracies of England and France became obsessed by their cosmetic regime. Pale skin, rouge and wigs were a must and the application of beauty spots became widespread, with the exact location of the spot being seen to represent a particular aspect of an individual’s personality!
The rise of an actual cosmetics industry took off at the start of the 20th century.
In the very early 1900s, make-up was not yet in wide use, except for face whitening for which arsenic was often used! Pale skin was namely associated with wealth as rich people did not have to spend time outdoors tending to fields.
The entertainment industry played a major role in making cosmetics fashionable
Around 1910, first through famous ballet and theatre stars, and later Hollywood, where icons of our industry such as Helena Rubinstein and Max Factor began their careers as make-up artists.
Fast forward to the present day
Thankfully, tin oxide, white lead, arsenic and bloodletting for cosmetics purposes remain a thing of the past! Instead, we now have thousands of products, ranging from sun care, oral care, skin care, hair care, body care, and make-up to perfume, each of which is tested extensively for safety before entering the market, based on strict EU laws.