The history of cosmetics spans at least 6000 years and is present in almost every society on earth. Some argue that cosmetic body art was the earliest form of ritual in human culture, dating over 100,000 years ago from the African Middle Stone Age. The evidence for this comes in the form of utilised red mineral pigments (red ochre) including crayons associated with the emergence of Homo sapiens in Africa.
Archaeological evidence of cosmetics certainly dates from ancient Egypt and Greece. According to one source, early major developments include the use of castor oil in ancient Egypt as a protective balm and skin creams made of beeswax, olive oil, and rosewater described by the Romans. The Ancient Greeks also used cosmetics.Cosmetics are mentioned in the Old Testament—2 Kings 9:30 where Jezebel painted her eyelids—approximately 840 BC—and the book of Esther describes various beauty treatments as well. Cosmetics were also used in ancient Rome, although much of Roman literature suggests that it was frowned upon. It is known that some women in ancient Rome invented make up including lead-based formulas, to whiten the skin, and kohl was used to line the eyes
Across the globe
The use of cosmetics in Ancient Egypt is well documented. Kohl and lacewing flies have their roots in north Africa. Remedies to treat wrinkles containing ingredients such as gum of frankincense and fresh moringa. For scars and burns, a special ointment was made of red ochre, kohl, and sycamore juice. An alternative treatment was a poultice of carob grounds and honey, or an ointment made of knotgrass and powdered root of wormwood. To improve breath the ancient Africans chewed herbs, frankincense, or licorice root stick, which is still in use today. Jars of what could be compared with setting lotion have been found to contain a mixture of beeswax and resin. These doubled as remedies for problems such as baldness and greying hair. They also used these products on their mummies, because they believed that it would make them irresistible in the after life.
Cosmetics were used in Persia and what is today the Middle East from ancient periods. Kohl is a black powder that is used widely across the Arab world. It is used as a powder or smeared to darken the edges of the eyelids similar to eyeliner.After Arab tribes converted to Islam and conquered those areas, in some areas cosmetics were only restricted if they were to disguise the real look in order to mislead or cause uncontrolled desire. In Islamic law, despite these requirements, there is no absolute prohibition on wearing cosmetics; the cosmetics must not be made of substances that harm one’s body.
An early teacher in the 10th century was Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi, or Abulcasis, who wrote the 24-volume medical encyclopedia Al-Tasrif. A chapter of the 19th volume was dedicated to cosmetics. As the treatise was translated into Latin, the cosmetic chapter was used in the West. Al-Zahrawi considered cosmetics a branch of medicine, which he called “Medicine of Beauty” (Adwiyat al-Zinah). He deals with perfumes, scented aromatics and incense. There were perfumed sticks rolled and pressed in special molds, perhaps the earliest antecedents of present-day lipsticks and solid deodorants. He also used oily substances called Adhan for medication and beautification.
Chinese people began to stain their fingernails with gum arabic, gelatin, beeswax and egg white from around 3000 BCE. The colors used represented social class: Chou dynasty (first millennium BC) royals wore gold and silver; later royals wore black or red. The lower classes were forbidden to wear bright colors on their nails.
A Beijing opera performer with traditional stage make up.
Flowers play an important decorative role in China. Legend has it that once on the 7th day of the 1st lunar month, while Princess Shouyang (壽陽公主), daughter of Emperor Wu of Liu Song (劉宋武帝), was resting under the eaves of Hanzhang Palace near the plum trees after wandering in the gardens, a plum blossom drifted down onto her fair face, leaving a floral imprint on her forehead that enhanced her beauty further. The court ladies were said to be so impressed, that they started decorating their own foreheads with a small delicate plum blossom design. This is also the mythical origin of the floral fashion, meihua zhuang (梅花妝; literally “plum blossom makeup”), that originated in the Southern Dynasties (420–589) and became popular amongst ladies in the Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) dynasties.
In Japan, geisha wore lipstick made of crushed safflower petals to paint the eyebrows and edges of the eyes as well as the lips, and sticks of bintsuke wax, a softer version of the sumo wrestlers’ hair wax, were used by geisha as a makeup base.Rice powder colors the face and back; rouge contours the eye socket and defines the nose.Ohaguro (black paint) colours the teeth for the ceremony, called Erikae, when maiko (apprentice geisha) graduate and become independent.The geisha would also sometimes use bird droppings to compile a lighter color.
In the Middle Ages it was thought sinful and immoral to wear makeup by Church leaders, but many women still did so. From the Renaissance up until the 20th century the lower classes had to work outside, in agricultural jobs and the typically light-colored European’s skin was darkened by exposure to the sun. The higher a person was in status, the more leisure time he or she had to spend indoors, which kept their skin pale. Thus, the highest class of European society were pale resulting in European men and mostly women attempting to lighten their skin directly, or using white powder on their skin to look more aristocratic. A variety of products were used, including white lead paint which also may have contained arsenic, which also poisoned women and killed many.Queen Elizabeth I of England was one well-known user of white lead, with which she created a look known as “the Mask of Youth”. Portraits of the queen by Nicholas Hilliard from later in her reign are illustrative of her influential style.
Pale faces were a trend during the European Middle Ages. In the 16th century, women would bleed themselves to achieve pale skin. Spanish prostitutes wore pink makeup to contract pale skin. 13th century Italian women wore red lipstick to show that they were upperclass.
The Americas and Australia
Some Indian American tribes painted their faces for ceremonial events or battle. Similar practices were followed by Aboriginals in Australia.