The history of cosmetics

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Cosmetics have been used almost as long as there have been people to use them. Face painting is mentioned in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 23, v. 40), and eye shadow found in Egyptian burials dates back to 10,000 B.C. Unguents (oils) were applied to the skin to keep it from drying out under the intense Egyptian sun.


The Egyptians were among the first to use cosmetics and perfumes. As early as 10,000 BCE, both men and women used scented oils and ointments to clean and soften the skin (and to mask body odor), and dyes and paints to color it. They rouged their lips and cheeks, stained their nails with henna, and lined their eyes and eyebrows heavily with kohl, a dark-colored powder made variously of crushed antimony, burnt almonds, lead, oxidized copper, ochre, ash, malachite and chrysocolla, a blue-green copper ore. Such measures were intended not only to be aesthetically pleasing, but also to protect the wearer from the heat of the sun and the dust of the desert. Myrrh, thyme, marjoram, chamomile, lavender, lily, peppermint, rosemary, cedar, rose, aloe, olive oil, sesame oil and almond oil provided the basic ingredients of most perfumes, which were important in religious rituals and in the process of embalming the dead.


Perfume cones

To prevent drying effect of the sun on the hair, the Egyptians treated it with a lump of moisturizing cream in the form of a cosmetic cone – often depicted in paintings (left), reliefs and sculptures from the New Kingdom. The cone would gradually melt thereby giving the wig a pleasant fragrance. Cosmetic spoons in the form of a swimming girl (picture on the right) are well known from the New Kingdom onwards. The Egyptian or Nubian girl is often wearing a girdle or collar around the waist and an elaborate wig. The girl’s outstretched arms hold a container which may take the form of a duck, gazelle, fish or a bouquet of flowers. Traditionally they have been considered to have served as a container for perfumes or ointments. They can be in either various types of stone or wood.


Cosmetic spoon






Woad was used as a cosmetic by early Europeans. They made blue paint out of it, with which the Picts and Celts painted their faces for war and personal decoration. Romanized Celts adopted the cosmetic practices of their conquerors, including the whitening of their faces with chalk and white lead. Teeth were cleaned with pumice, fingernails coloured with fat, mixed with the blood of sheep.


The dominance of the Church kept the use of cosmetics during the early Middle Ages to a minimum. Noble ladies who wished to achieve the fashionable pale complexion used white powder and water soluble paint or applied leeches to drain the blood from their cheeks. Lipstick and rouge were reserved for women of “bad character.”


The pendulum swung, however, in the early 16th century. By the time Elizabeth I ascended the throne of England, both ladies and gentlemen were moisturizing, powdering, painting and perfuming their skin constantly. Popular beauty treatments included rosemary water for the hair, elder flower ointment for the skin, sage to whiten teeth, bathing in wine, an egg white and honey mask to smooth away wrinkles and geranium petal rouge.


Other, more dangerous concoctions were white lead, which courtiers applied one coat on top of another to whiten their faces and necks; rouge made from mercuric sulphide; mercury sublimate for removing blemishes; and a hair dye of lead, sulphur, quicklime and water designed to match the Queen’s natural red tresses (later, her wigs). Often these preparations damaged the user’s health, even causing a few deaths.


Roman age Celts washed themselves often, sometimes spending hours at public baths. As this custom gradually faded, people’s natural body odors became stronger until the introduction of perfumes by returning Crusaders in the 1400s was a welcome relief. Herb scents such as rosemary were popular, as well as myrrh, frankincense, orange, rose and spice fragrances. Ladies, whose noses were believed to be far more delicate than men’s, carried perfume filled pomanders to combat the stenches found in an occupied castle.


The 17th century brought an explosion of cosmetic indulgence, including extensive use of powder and rouge and an entire flirtatious code based on the shape and placement of beauty patches. In our period, however, even the most heavily painted lady (outside of Elizabeth’s court, that is) probably wore no more makeup than the average modern fashion model.