History of Cosmetics

Cosmetic products are today part of our regular culture and fashion, but that was not always the case. The first human made cosmetics appeared in early modern civilizations some 6 thousand years ago as the way to enhance the appearance and odor of the human body, but the difficult manufacturing processes, harmful ingredients and their connection to the high ruling classes created the aura of exclusivity around them. For the long periods of time, cosmetic products were frowned upon in Western history, and even actively forbidden to be used by many organizations. This “dark” period of cosmetic use finally ended during the end of the 19th and early 20th century, when great advancements in manufacturing, new entertainment industries and faster changes enabled the rise of famous cosmetic brands and their widespread use.

The first archeological evidence of cosmetics comes from the excavated tombs of Ancient Egypt pharaohs, but historians are convinced that first natural made cosmetics were used by our prehistoric ancestors much before rise of modern civilizations. 6 thousand year old relics from Egypt tell us that their royalty and high class enjoyed several cosmetic products, such as face creams, perfumed oils, eyeliners, hair paints, castor oil, lipsticks, and lip gloss. As the centuries and millennia went, Egypt chemist found a way to simplify the manufacturing process of cosmetics, but that did not manage to remove the aura of their “exclusivity”. One of the most important causes for that were their badly formed recipes, which often included poisonous ingredients that could cause serious illnesses. However, even with that, cosmetics remained important part of the Egyptian culture and especially their burial rituals. Among all cosmetic products, cedar oil was considered to be the most sacred one, because it was used in the process of mummification. That process used 7 types of oils, which were also the basis for the Egyptian ritual magic and medicinal remedies for various illnesses.

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Even though Egyptian priest guarded their cosmetic recipes from the neighboring “primitive” civilizations, Mediterranean trade of the 1st millennia BC soon brought Egyptian cosmetic products to the shores of the newly formed Greek and Roman civilizations. There, high fashion was important and many wealthy people wore wigs, white face powder, and women used red lipsticks and red oils to make their palms “more younger”. In Rome, woman was not considered beautiful if she did not use face cosmetics. Lipsticks, skin creams made from beeswax, olive oils and rosewater, powders, hair colors and many other beauty treatments were widely used in the period of 100 BC and beyond. They even had special type of female slaves whose only task was to help their masters to be more beautiful. Their names lives with us even today, Cosmetae.

When Christianity rose, Christian woman started to celebrate their religion with jewelry and cosmetics. Even the Old Testament mentioned two kings who painted their eyelids sometimes around 840BC. However, with the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe entered into dark ages where harsh living conditions, poverty, illnesses and constant wars prevented the spreading of expensive and extravagant fashion trends. This meant that almost all traces of cosmetic product disappeared from the European culture, not only because of its scarcity but also because Christian church actively prevented it’s spreading. Isolation of Europe finally came to the end in the 12th and 13th century, when warriors returning from the crusades brought with them exotic cosmetic items from the Middle East where they never went out of fashion. This new influx of riches and knowledge from the east soon kick-started European renaissance, which transformed the Europe into advanced civilization. Fortune started moving from the wealthy down to the middle classes, industry was rising, sciences and arts received much needed funding, and trade routes started spreading new fashions much more quickly than before.

Even with all the advances of Renaissance, cosmetics received little attention from general population. Some used hair coloring, painted eggs on their faces to remove wrinkles and used similar “old age” removal techniques, but widespread use of face and hand cosmetics never took hold outside aristocracy. The only really popular period of time when cosmetics was well received was during and shortly after the reign of English Queen Elizabeth I (1558 - 1603). Her unique fashion style of stark white faces and brightly colored lips captured the attention of royalty and aristocrats across England and France, but that lasted only for a short time. Soon after that cosmetics (especially highly visible facial and nail paints) became common among low class women, such as prostitutes. Nothing changed much between late 17th century and mid-19th century. Cosmetic products were uncommon among majority of European civilization, in some cases receiving status of banned and absolutely inappropriate merchandise. The only exceptions were medical cosmetic remedies that were used by everyone but the poorest in 18th century.

The dawn of cosmetic use finally arrived in the second part of 19th century when industrial revolution and great advances in chemistry (chemical fragrances) enabled much easier and varied production of various cosmetic products. With much lower price and chemical ingredients that were much less dangerous for health, cosmetics started gaining serious foothold. Some of the most famous cosmetic products from that time were rogue red lipstick (it symbolized health and wealth), zinc facial powder (much safer than previous lead and copper based powders) and eye shadow and eye sparklers.

The turning point in the western fashion came in 1920s when mass marketed cosmetic products finally became financially viable. And where profit can be found, there is the will to market and sell it. Photography, cult of film actors and big marketing campaigns soon brought the fall of traditional Victorian fashion, enabling women of all ages to start wearing cosmetic products in the public. Early decades of cosmetics popularity in the west brought us many inventive products, such as Lip Gloss by Max Factor, synthetic hair dye and sunscreen by L'Oréal, suntan and red nail polish by Coco Chanel, and others.

After the World War II and its period of heavy material rationing, cosmetic industry experienced its second renaissance. Countless new fashion trends were adopted, mostly being popularized by various movie actresses and musicians. Today, cosmetics industry is a multi-billion dollar business that stretches across entire world, always finding new ways and fashion trends that sustains and ensures its growth.

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