What is Cosmetics' History?

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  • Written By: Erika Peterson
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 August 2019
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Cosmetics history dates back to ancient Egypt. Like today, there was an emphasis on looking your best, except more primitive materials were necessary to obtain the desired effect. Mesdemet, made by combining copper and lead ore, was one type of cosmetic used by the Egyptian women. Green color was applied to the lower eyelids, while black or dark gray was put on the upper eyelids and lashes.

Cosmetics history includes facts about how Egyptian societies used makeup products. For the Egyptians cosmetics were used partially for their spiritual value, as they were a very religious group. The dark colors around the eyes were intended in part to ward off the evil eye and please the gods. Mesdemet also worked to disinfect and keep insects away. Cosmetics history tells us that chemicals used for early cosmetics were often dangerous, such as those used for making mesdemet and kohl.

Kohl was a dark powder, which was applied in an almond shape around the eyes with a stick. Kohl was made of ochre, lead, ash, burnt almonds, oxidized copper, and different colors of copper ore. For the cheeks and lips, red clay mixed with water was the makeup of choice. Even fingernails were painted yellow or orange by use of henna. In ancient China, gum arabic, egg whites, gelatin and beeswax were used to create nail color.


As time went on, cultures merged, and the Greeks began to move into cosmetics history and adopt the use of Egyptian cosmetics. They did not do so for spiritual purposes, but simply to look good. Centuries later, the Romans moved in, and their use for cosmetic formulas began to evolve into other purposes, such as creating aphrodisiacs. They used sheep fat mixed with blood for nail polish and, instead of just using the traditional body oils created by Egyptians, took baths in crocodile excrement and mud.

Throughout many centuries, the color of the face distinguished between social and economic classes. Starting around the 1400s, those who were tanned were the lower working class, who worked outside in the fields. The more refined class of people had pale skin and a desire to make it even whiter.

Both women and men used a combination of carbonate, hydroxide and lead oxide to create a white powder to douse on the face. This deadly concoction resulted in lead poisoning, which led people to find an alternative. Cosmetics history tells us that in the 19th century, a powder made of zinc oxide produced the desired result of a pale face, without the dangerous consequences. Zinc oxide powder is still used today.

In the 20th century, Hollywood made popular a new look which replaced the white face – tanned. By the 1920s, tanning products became available in the form of liquids and powders to provide a darker look to even the palest of skin. The sale of cosmetics declined briefly during the Great Depression, but now the cosmetics business, complete with a full array of anything you'd need for the face, hair, or skin, is booming larger than ever.


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Post 1

Cosmetic use dates back at least as far as the Egyptians and probably farther, with use of body paints in sub-Saharan African tribes.

It really is amazing what people have put on their faces over the years for the cause of beauty. I read about a Chinese face cream that was prized for being made from ground pearls and nightingale droppings. Disgusting. Definitely.

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