The History of Makeup

The history of makeup spans at least 6,000 years in human history of almost every society on our planet and what a turbulent history it is.

If you are concerned about the ingredients in makeup these days, just wait 'til you read about what both men and women have put on their skin over the ages and the price they paid.

Makeup trends change constantly and it is fascinating to take a look at the evolution of cosmetics. Although both women and men have been wearing cosmetics for centuries, what and how they wear makeup has undergone some dramatic changes.

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History of Makeup From Ancient Times

The first archaelogical evidence, dated from 4,000 BC, of cosmetic usage was found in ancient Egypt where excavated tombs revealed great numbers of unguent jars. Due to the hot, drying climate both men and women used unguent, a substance which softened the skin, prevented burning in the sun and limited damage from the sandy winds.

Ancient Egyptians believed makeup did more than just enhance their natural features. They believed their elaborate eye make up could ward off evil spirits and improve the sight; even the poor wore eye make-up.

The favourite eye make up colours of Egyptian women were black and green.

They decorated their eyes by applying dark green to the under lid and using kohl to outline the eyes, creating that alluring almond-eye look. Kohl is made up of lead, copper, burned almonds, soot, and other ingredients including galena (which has disinfectant qualitites).

Kohl shielded the eyes against the sun and acted as a deterrant to flies. Ancient Egyptian Physicians prescribed the use of kohl against eye disease

The green coloring was acheived by crushing malachite, a copper ore that has a vibrant green color.
To Kohl or Not to Kohl?

History of Makeup - Lipstick in Egypt

Ancient Egyptians used a type of rouge to stain their lips and cheeks.

To create this staining effect they squeezed out purple-red colour from iodine and bromine. Unfortunately, this combination of deadly ingredients led to serious diseases and came to be known as ‘the kiss of death’.

According to some sources, Cleopatra’s lipstick was made of carmine beetles and ant’s eggs. When worked in a pestle, the carmine beetles gave a strong red colour and the ant’s eggs provided the base ingredient.

I read with fascination that the ancients used fish scales to give the shimmer to their lipstick. Imagine kissing lips coated in fish scales … Yuk!

History of Makeup - Colours of the Ancient Egyptians

The red coloring in makeup was achieved by using red ochre. Ochre has been used since prehistoric times and is a pigment made from naturally tinted clay - hydrated iron oxide.

Henna, a dye obtained from the leaves and shoots of the henna shrub and native to parts of Africa, was used to paint their nails and color their hair. The colour and condition of nails have long been an indication of social status. Henna was also used as a healing plant and for cleansing and cooling the skin.

Although no self-respecting Egyptian would leave home without it, makeup has not always held an accepted place in society and has travelled a roller coaster ride to present day acceptance.

What Platus said about Makeup

In 254-184 BC, Platus, a Roman philosopher, wrote, "A woman without paint is like food without salt."

By the middle of the 1st century AD, Romans widely used cosmetics. Kohl was used for darkening eyelashes and eyelids, chalk was used for whitening the complexion, and rouge was worn on the cheek. Depilatories were used and pumice was used for cleaning the teeth.

More facts I found fascinating in the history of makeup was that Persian women used henna dyes to stain their hair and faces with the belief that these dyes enabled them to summon the majesty of the earth.

In Greco-Roman society, women wore white lead and chalk on their faces.

During the European Middle Ages, pale skin was a sign of wealth. Women sought drastic measures to achieve that look by bleeding themselves.

During the Italian Renaissance, lead paint was used to lighten the face, which was very damaging to the wearer. Aqua Toffana was a popular face powder made from arsenic.

The history of makeup shows the most dangerous beauty 'aids' were white lead and mercury.

These not only eventually ruined the skin but also caused hair loss, stomach problems, the shakes, and could even cause death.

Although these dangers became known, the majority of women continued to use these deadly whiteners.

Queen Elizabeth I of England was a well-known user of white lead, with which she created a look known as "the Mask of Youth"

History of Makeup From the 17th Century

During the reign of Charles II, heavy makeup began to surface as a means to contradict the pallor from being inside due to illness and epidemics.

In 1653, Thomas Hall, an English pastor and author of the "Loathsomeness of Long Haire", led a movement declaring that face painting was "the devil's work" and that women who put brush to mouth were trying to "ensnare others and to kindle a fire and flame of lust in the hearts of those who cast their eyes upon them."

(Meg Cohen Ragas and Karen Kozlowski’s book ‘Read My Lips: A Cultural History of Lipstick’ is a fascinating insight if you want to delve deeper.)

In 1770, the British Parliament passed a law condemning lipstick, stating that women found guilty of seducing men into matrimony by a cosmetic means could be tried for witchcraft.

Queen Victoria publicly declared makeup impolite.

Any visible hint of tampering with one's natural color would be looked upon with disdain. Some women wore egg whites over their faces for a glazed look.

The higher class a person was, the more leisure time he or she had to spend indoors, which kept the skin pale. Thus, the highest classes of European Society, able to spend all of their time protected from the sun, frequently had the lightest-looking skin. European men and women often used white powder on their skin to look more aristocratic.

Local pharmacists made many cosmetics and common ingredients included white lead paint, arsenic, mercury and nitric acid. Additionally, even though women were aware it was poisonous, belladonna was used to make their eyes appear more luminous.

In the 1800s, makeup was viewed as vulgar and only worn by actors and prostitutes.

When makeup began to resurface, full makeup was still seen as sinful, although natural tones were accepted to give a healthy, pink-cheek look.

During the French Restoration in the 18th century, red rouge and lipstick were used to give the impression of a healthy, fun-loving spirit.

In this history of makeup, you may be surprised to learn that men wore makeup until the 1850's. George IV spent a fortune on cold cream, powders, pastes, and scents. However, not all men wore makeup, as many looked upon a man with rouged cheeks as a dandy.

Continuing our history of lipstick, in 1884, perfumers in Paris introduced the first modern lipstick. It was wrapped in silk paper and made with deer tallow, castor oil and beeswax.

History of Makeup From the 20th Century

The real evolution in the history of makeup actually began during the 1910's. By then, women made their own form of mascara by adding hot beads of wax to the tips of their eyelashes. Some women would use petroleum jelly for this purpose. Find out more on the history of mascara

By 1909, Selfridges opened in London's Oxford Street and openly sold cosmetics.

Cosmetics displays were openly visible to the customers and were no longer hidden under the counter.

During the early years of the 20th century, make-up became fashionable in America and Europe due to the influence of ballet, theatre and, the most influential new development of all, the movie industry in Hollywood.

The popularity of silent films promoted the use of lipstick, as women in those films wore black lipstick. It was also around this time in the history of makeup the first push-up tubes of lipstick were invented.

Striding through our history of makeup, In the 1920s, Coco Chanel invented the Flapper style, which embraced dark eyes, red lipstick, red nail polish and the suntan. Now we are talking.

From the 1930's through the 1950's, various movie stars proved to be the models for current trends in makeup.

Putting on a happy face during World War II, aided by the movie industry, gave lipstick and face powder respectability. It became the patriotic duty of female citizens to "put their face on".

The newly emancipated woman of America began to display her independence by free use of red lipstick which was often scented with cherry.

Vogue featured Turkish women using henna to outline their eyes, and the movie industry immediately took interest. This technique made the eyes look larger, and the word 'vamp' became associated with these women, vamp being short for vampire.

During the 1960s and 1970s, many women in the western world were influenced by feminism and decided to go without any makeup. Feminists in this movement felt makeup contributed to the second-class status of women, making them mere sex objects who wasted time applying cosmetics.

In Today's World

In today's world, a woman has literally hundreds of cosmetics to choose from, with a wide variety of colours and uses.

I believe a women’s 'inner beauty' is her ‘real beauty’.

Outer beauty will not remain forever, no matter what drastic measures are taken.

There are some tragic cases of women (and men) chasing the alluring look of youth. One’s face can only cope with so many operations and procedures before the final result is one of scars, deformities and the accompanying plunge in self-esteem. How about you?

Yet every women has to decide for herself what path to take and to understand the consequences of taking that path.

Would I swap the mind I have now for the body I had when I was young?Absolutely not! Yes, I know, it would be good to be able to have both.

Until that possibility is invented, I’ll stay exactly as I am, with every wrinkle, every extra skin fold and be the fun loving, accepting and sharing wise woman I see myself as. How about you?


Strange Stories from the History of Makeup

What women have done in their quest for beauty makes fascinating reading.

Are we so different today?

What unbelievable but true stories do you know about any culture, any age or anyone? We would love to know.

Enter the title of your story (eg. Shocking Eyeshadow Ingredients)

What Other Visitors Have Shared

Click on the links below to read some fascinating stories about the History of Makeup. They were all written by other visitors to this page.

'Beauty Pain' - Are we that different to the women that have gone before us? 
On this page about the history of make-up, white lead is referred to as one of the most dangerous beauty aids. Go back a few centuries in Japan. The …

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