Cosmetic History

History of Cosmetics | Nidara Perfumes

Where did Makeup originally come from?

The history of cosmetics spans at least 7,000 years and is present in almost every society on earth.

One of the earliest cultures to have used cosmetics was ancient Egypt, where both men and women used some form of makeup to enhance their appearance. 

The use of cosmetics in ancient Egypt is well documented.  The use of black khol eyeliner and eyeshadows in dark colours such as blue, red and black was common and was commonly recorded and represented in Egyptian art as well as being seen in Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Ancient Egyptians also extracted red dye iodine and some bromine mannite, but this dye resulted in serious illness.  Lipsticks with shimmering effects were initially made using pearlescent substance found in fish scales which are still used extensively today. 

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Despite the hazardous nature of some of the Egyptian cosmetics ancient Egyptian makeup was also considered to have antibacterial properties that helped to prevent infections.  Remedies to treat wrinkles contained ingredients such as such as gum of frankincense and fresh moringa which is a plant native to Africa. 

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 or frankincense 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. 

They also used these products on their mummies as they believed it would make them irresistible in the afterlife.

Egyptian Mummy


Cosmetics are also referred to in the Old Testament where the biblical figure of Jezebel painted her eyelids which was around 840 BC. 

Cosmetics are also mentioned in the book of Esther where beauty treatments are described.

Book of Esther


In China flowers played an important decorative role.  Legend has it that once on the 7th day of the first lunar month, while Princess Shouyang, daughter of Emperor Wu of Liu Song, was resting under the eaves of Hanzhang Palace near the plum trees a plum blossom drifted down onto her fair face, leaving a floral imprint on her forehead that enhanced her beauty further. 

Princess Shouyang

The court ladies were said to have been 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 which is literally plum blossom makeup.


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 was which is a softer version of the sumo wrestler’s hair wax were used by geisha as a makeup base.

Rice powder colours the face and back, rouge contours the eye socket and defines the nose.  They also used Ohaguro which is a black paint to colour the teeth for the ceremony called Erikae which is when the apprentice geisha graduates and becomes independent.  The geisha would also sometimes use bird droppings to compile a lighter colour.

Persia which we know today as Iran

Cosmetics were also used in Persia  which we know today as Iran.  Kohl is a black powder that is used widely across the Persian Empire.

It is used as a powder or smeared to darken the edges of the eyelids like an eyeliner.  After Persian tribes converted to Islam and conquered those areas, in some area’s 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.

Why did makeup become feminine?

Cultures to use cosmetics include the ancient Greeks and the Romans.  In the Roman Empire the use of cosmetics was common amongst prostitutes and rich women. 

Such adornment was sometimes lamented by certain Roman writers who thought it to be against the innocence required of women by what they considered traditional Roman values.

Roman and greek prostitues

Pale faces

Pale faces were a trend during the European Middle Ages.

In the 16th century Italian women wore red lipstick to show that they were upper class.  The use of cosmetics continued in the Middle Ages where the face was whitened, and the cheeks rouged.

In western Europe the personal attributes of the women who used makeup created a demand for the product among the upper class. 

Cosmetics continued to be used in the following centuries although attitudes towards cosmetics varied.  

The use of cosmetics was often frowned upon in many points in Western history.

19th Century

In the 19th century Queen Victoria publicly declared makeup improper, vulgar and acceptable only for use by actors, with many actresses of the time, such as Sarah Bernhardt and Lillie Langtry using makeup.

19th century fashion ideals of women appearing delicate, feminine and pale were achieved by the use of makeup, with some women discreetly using rouge on their cheeks and drops of belladonna to dilate their eyes to appear larger.

Though cosmetics were used discreetly by many women, makeup in Western cultures during this time were generally frowned upon, particularly during the 1870’s when Western social etiquette increased in rigidity.  

Teachers and clergywomen specifically were forbidden the use of cosmetic products.


Late 1800's

During the late 1800’s the Western cosmetics industry began to grow due to a rise in visual self-awareness and there was a shift in the perception of colour cosmetics and improvements in the safety of products. 

Prior to the 19th century limitations in lighting technology and access to reflective devices stifled people’s ability to regularly perceive their appearance.  This limited the need for a cosmetic market and resulted in individuals creating and applying their own products at home.  Several technological advancements in the latter half of the century including the innovation of mirrors, commercial photography, marketing and electricity in the home and in public, increased consciousness of one’s appearance and created a demand for cosmetic products that improved one’s image.

Face powders, rouges, lipstick...

Face powders, rouges, lipstick and similar products made from home were found to have toxic ingredients, which deterred customers from using them. 

Discoveries of non-toxic cosmetic ingredients such as Henry Tetlow’s 1866 use of zinc oxide as a face powder and the distribution of cosmetic products by established companies such as Rimmel, Guerlain and Hudnut helped to open the market of cosmetic products to the wider public. 


Skincare together with face painting products like powders also became ‘in demand’ products of the cosmetic industry.

 The mass advertisements of cold cream brands such as Pond’s through billboards, magazines and newspapers created a high demand for the product.

These advertisements and cosmetic marketing styles were soon replicated in European countries which further increased the popularity of the advertised products in Europe.

Early 1900's

During the early 1900’s makeup women hardly wore makeup at all as it was still mostly the territory of prostitutes, those in cabarets and on the black and white television screen. 

Face enamelling became popular amongst the rich at this time to look pale.  This practice was dangerous due to the main ingredient often being arsenic.

Pale skin was associated with wealth because it meant that one was not out working in the sun and could afford to stay inside all day. 


Cosmetics were so unpopular that no department store stocked cosmetic products and the only way to purchase them was through a theatrical costume store.

A woman’s makeup routine often consisted of using a powdered paper/oil blotting sheet to whiten the nose in the winter and shine their cheeks in the summer.  Rouge was considered provocative so was only seen on ‘women of the night’. 

Some women burnt matchsticks to darken eyelashes and geranium and poppy petals to stain the lips.  Vaseline became high in demand because it was used on chapped lips, as a base for hair tonic and soap.  Toilet waters were introduced in the early 1900’s but only lavender water or refined cologne was admissible for women to wear.

Cosmetic deodorant was invented in 1888 by an unknown inventor from Philadelphia and was trademarked under the name of Mum.  Roll-on deodorant was launched in 1952 and aerosol deodorant in 1965.


Around 1910, makeup became fashionable in the United States of America and Europe owing to the influence of ballet and theatre stars.

Coloured makeup was introduced in Paris upon the arrival of the Russian Ballet where ochers and crimsons were the most typical shades. 

Beauty book

The Daily Mirror beauty book

The Daily Mirror beauty book showed that cosmetics were now acceptable for the literate classes to wear. However, men often saw rouge as a mark of sex and sin and rouging was considered an admission of ugliness.

In 1915 a Kansas legislature proposed to make it a ‘misdemeanour’ for women under the age of 44 to wear cosmetics ‘for the purpose of creating a false impression’.  The Daily Mirror was one of the first to suggest using a pencil line or eyeliner to elongate the eye and an eyelash curler to accentuate the lashes.  Eyebrow darkener was also presented in this beauty book created from gum Arabic, Indian ink and rosewater.   


George Burchett

George Burchett introduced cosmetic tattooing during this time period and was able to tattoo on pink blushes, red lips and dark eyebrows. 

He also was able to tattoo men disfigured in the First World War by inserting skin tones in damaged faces and by covering scars with colours more pleasing to the eye. 

Max Factor

Max Factor

In 1909 Max Factor opened a professional makeup studio for stage and screen actors in Los Angeles. Although the store was intended for actors, ordinary women came in to purchase theatrical eye shadow and eyebrow pencils for their home use.

In the 1920’s the Hollywood film industry had the most influential impact on cosmetics.  The stars of the screen had a substantial effect on the makeup industry.  Helena Rubinstein was a makeup artist for Theda Bara and created a mascara for the actress by relying on her experiments with kohl. 

Others who saw the opportunity for the mass market of cosmetics during this time were Max Factor and Elizabeth Arden. Many of the present-day makeup manufacturers were established in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Lipsticks were one of the most popular cosmetics of this time more so than rouge and powder because they were colourful and cheap.  In 1915 Maurice Levy invented the metal container for lipstick which gave licence to its mass production.

Coco Chanel

The flapper style of the 1920’s also influenced the cosmetics industry which embraced dark eyes and red lipstick, red nail polish and the suntan, invented as a fashion statement by Coco Chanel. 

The eyebrow pencil became very popular because it was technologically superior to what it had been, due to a new ingredient being used which was hydrogenated cottonseed oil.


The early commercial mascaras like Maybelline were simply pressed cakes containing soap and pigments.  A woman would dip a tiny brush into hot water, rub the bristles on the cake, remove the excess by rolling the brush onto some blotting paper or a sponge and apply the mascara as if her eyelashes were a watercolour canvas.


Eugene Schueller, founder of L’Oreal, invented modern synthetic hair dye in 1907 and he also invented sunscreen in 1936. The first patent for nail polish was granted in 1919 and was a very pale pink.

Fake Tan

Previously only agricultural workers had suntans while fashionable women kept their skins as pale as possible but in the wake of Coco Chanel’s adoption of the suntan, dozens of new fake tan products were produced to help both men and women to achieve the ‘sun-kissed’ look. In Asia skin whitening continued to represent the ideal beauty, as it does to this day.

Cosmetic Surgery

After the First World War there was a boom in cosmetic surgery.  During the 1920’ and 1930’s facial configuration and social identity dominated a plastic surgeon ‘s world. 

Face-lifts were performed as early as 1920 but it was in the 1960’s that cosmetic surgery was used to reduce the signs of ageing. During the 20th century cosmetic surgery revolved mainly around women.  Men only participated in the practice if they had been disfigured by the war.

In 1962 silicone implants were introduced. In the 1980’s The American Society of Plastic Surgeons made efforts to increase public awareness about plastic surgery.  As a result, in 1982 the United States Supreme Court granted physicians the legal right to advertise their procedures. By advertising what appeared to be straight forward procedures made the surgeries seem hazard-free even though that was not always the case.

The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reported that more than 2 million Americans elected to undergo plastic surgery both surgical and non-surgical, liposuction being the most popular, breast implants ranked second while others opted for eye surgery, face-lifts and chemical peels.

From 1939 to 1945 during the Second World War cosmetics were in short supply.  Petroleum and alcohol which are the basic ingredients for most cosmetics were diverted into war supply.


During this time cosmetic developers realised that the war would result in a huge boom afterwards, so they began preparing. 

Elizabeth Arden, Yardley, Helena Rubinstein and the French manufacturing company became associated with ‘quality’ because they were the oldest established companies. 

Ponds had the same appeal in the lower price range.  Gala cosmetics were one of the first to give its products fantasy names such as lipsticks in ‘lantern red’ and ‘sea coral’.

1960's to 1970's

During the 1960’s and 1970’s many women in the western world who were influenced by feminism decided to go without cosmetics.

In 1968 at the feminist Miss America protest, protesters threw several feminine products into a ‘freedom trash can’ which included cosmetics. 

Cosmetics in the 1970’s were divided into a natural look for during the day and a more sexualised image for the evening.  Non-allergic makeup appeared when the bare face was in fashion as women became more interested in the chemical value of their makeup.

Modern developments in technology facilitated the production of cosmetics which were more natural looking and had greater staying power than their predecessors.  The prime cosmetic of the time was eye shadow although women were still interested in lipstick colours such as lilac, green and silver. Blush-ons came into the market with Revlon giving them wide publicity. This product was applied to the forehead, lower cheeks and chin.  Contouring and highlighting the face with white eye shadow cream also became popular.

Avon introduced the saleswoman. In general, the whole cosmetic industry opened opportunities for women in business entrepreneurs, inventors, manufacturers, distributors and promoters.

In the 21st century beauty products are widely available from dedicated internet-only retailers, who have been more recently joined online by established outlets, including the major department stores and beauty retailers.

Avon parties

Although modern makeup has been used mainly by women, gradually an increasing number of males are using cosmetics usually associated to women to enhance their own facial features.  Concealer is commonly used by cosmetic-conscious men. 

Cosmetic brands are releasing cosmetic products especially tailored for men.  There is some controversy as many feel that men who wear makeup are neglecting traditional gender, others however view this as a sign of ongoing gender equality and feel that men also have the right to enhance their facial features with cosmetics as well as women.

Today the world of cosmetics has a different dynamic compared to the 20th century and countries like Japan, who have the second largest cosmetic market in the world are driving the industry.  However, the market situation is quickly changing as consumers can access a lot of information on the internet and choose many alternatives, opening many opportunities for newcomers entering the market.  The size of the cosmetics market in 2010 for Japan was 2286 billion yen on the basis of the value of shipments by brand manufacturer. With a growth rate of 0.1% the market was almost unchanged from the previous year.

Another country driving the cosmetic industry is Russia who, in 2012, were ranked 5th largest in the world. The Russian perfumery and cosmetics market has shown the highest growth of 21% since 2004.

In this ever-changing world of fashion, perfumery and cosmetics who knows what the future will hold.

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