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Cosmetics: A Timeline of Personal Care Products

  • Have you ever wondered when people started using makeup?
  • Human beings have been adorning themselves with various pastes, powders, clays and pigments since the early days of human history, and many of the same ingredients are used in cosmetic formulations and personal care products today. From talcum powder to henna tattoos, many modern products have a long history!
  • But attitudes and access to cosmetics have varied over the centuries - take a brief historical tour of the development of cosmetic products and see what's new - and what's almost exactly the same!

Ancient times: 10,000 BCE-100 BCE

  • 10,000 BCE: In Egypt, we find the first proof of a “sacred” oil (castor oil, olive oil, etc) that was used in religious ritual and which formed the base of many perfumes used for sacred purposes after being infused with herbs, among them myrrh, lavender, rosemary, cedar, rose and aloe. The harsh sun of the Egyptian climate, coupled with the constant arid winds, made oils and ointments essential to both health and hygiene.
  • 4000 BCE: The use of cosmetic products continues to evolve in Egypt, where women color their faces with crushed minerals: malachite makes a bright green paste and galena mesdemet, which was a combination of lead ore and copper. Kohl, a paste made from burnt almonds, lead, ash and yellow ochre – together with various copper ores – was used around the eyes to create an oval, almond style familiar to anyone who’s seen a tomb painting from that time. Several “makeup cases” have been found in tombs, and there are paintings of women carrying them to parties, setting them beneath their chairs, convenient for a quick touch-up!
  • 3000 BCE: In Greece, women begin to paint their faces with white lead and use a variety of juices (pomegranate, mulberry, etc.) to stain their lips and use as rouge; using was as a fixative, they also applied false eyebrows made from ox or horsehair and anointed themselves with scented oils.

    In the Far East, it’s fingernails that become a social statement – the Chinese stain their fingers with a variety of dyes and coat them with mixtures of gelatin, beeswax and egg; over the centuries, the colors used by different social strata changed. Originally, royalty alone wore gold and silver, but that changed to royals wearing red or black, instead. The common people were not allowed to color their nails in any but the drabbest shades.
  • 3300 BCE: In Southern Europe, some tribes begin using tattoos in religious rituals, and women along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq begin making and selling the first bulk-produced cosmetic products.
  • 3100 BCE: Archaeologists have discovered what they believe to be make-up palettes in tombs from this era, on which the people of the day ground and mixed cosmetic ingredients.
  • 1500 BCE: The Egyptians continue at the forefront of cosmetics development, with everyone save the lowest ranked citizens using at least some kind of skin product, be it scented oil or face cream that whitened the skin. Both men and women used kohl as an eyeliner and mascara. At the same time, high-ranking Japanese began using rice powder to whiten their skin and various dyes for lips; it is also common for teeth to be stained black or gilded with gold.
  • 1000 BCE: In Greece, ladies fashion crude lip colors from ochre clays that contain red iron and whiten their complexions with chalk or powder made from white lead. In Egypt, public bathhouses lead to the first large-scale production of medicinal and cosmetic oils, ointments and soaps.
  • 600 BCE: Babylon becomes renowned as the biggest perfume trader of the ancient world, with gardens of flowers and herbs that become famous.
  • 189 BCE: Cosmetics had been creeping into Rome for centuries, but had not become widely available until this time; expanded trade with Egypt brought expensive foreign cosmetics into the Roman marketplace and an addiction was born. Rome’s Senate passed a law forbidding the use of cosmetics in public and imposing large tariffs on their import, hoping to stop this foreign addiction. The law lasted six years, until Rome defeated and sacked Carthage; the wealth that flooded into Rome from the ravaged city was such that the tariffs ceased to be a disincentive, and the law was repealed.

The Very Old Days: 100 CE -1400 CE

  • 100 CE: Roman bathhouses were renowned for their luxury and for the cosmetic amenities available to their customers. Men (and women) were massaged with medicinal or aromatic oils, de-pilated or shaved, had their hair bleached or their eyebrows plucked. Soaps and ointments, as well as perfumes and fragrant oils, were widely available and broadly used by the entire population.
  • 400 to 1000 CE: The influence of the Roman Catholic Church causes cosmetics to vanish from most of Europe – condemned by the religious hierarchy as an immoral product, few used any but the most subtle products.
  • 936-1013 CE: An Arab physician, surgeon and chemist, Abulcasis (known as “father of the modern surgery”) invented solid lipsticks, which could be applied without requiring a brush.
  • 1000 CE:Cosmetic products return to Europe, primarily for the lower classes. Their use is condemned by the Church, but no laws exist to ban their use.
  • 1200 CE: With the Crusades, the many perfumes of Mesopotamia are imported to Europe from the Middle East.
  • 1300 CE: In Elizabethan England, hair dyed red with henna becomes a fashion. Society women paint egg whites over their faces to create the appearance of a paler complexion.
  • 1400 – 1500 CE: Italy and France emerge as the main centers of cosmetics manufacturing. Instead of white lead or chalk, arsenic is sometimes used in face powder. France is where the idea of creating complex scents – blends of herbs, floral scents, woods, etc – begins.
  • 1500-1600 CE: Blonde hair rises in popularity – supposedly, angels had blonde hair – and a variety of hair-lightening mixtures were developed, one mixture of black sulphur, alum and honey was painted onto hair and then left to “cure” in the sun!
  • 1700 CE: Geishas in Japan introduce the look of white painted faces; use of the white face paint is restricted to stage actors (Nōh actors) and the geishas themselves.

The Good Old Days: 1850 CE-1950 CE

  • 1850 CE: Zinc oxide is now used for face powder in Europe, replacing the toxic mixtures of lead and copper that had been common until then. Queen Victoria declares makeup improper. It is viewed as vulgar and acceptable only for use by actors.
  • 1880-88 CE: First deodorant is marketed. David McConnell founds the California Perfume Company (CPC) then located in New York. Over time, the company experiences great success. In 1928, CPC sells its first products — a toothbrush, a talcum and a vanity set — under the name by which it is commonly known today: Avon.
  • 1904 CE: The number of U.S. firms manufacturing perfumery and toilet goods increases from 67 in 1880 to 262 in 1900. Max Factor, a Polish-American cosmetician and former cosmetic expert for the Russian royal family, begins selling his rouges and creams in the United States at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Max Factor later established a company in Los Angeles that specialized in making cosmetics for the film industry.
  • 1907 CE: Safe synthetic hair dye invented by Eugene Schueller, a young French chemist. In 1909, Schueller names his company Societe Francaise de Teintures Inoffensives por Cheveux (Safe Hair Dye Company of France) — which today is known as L’Oréal.
  • 1913 CE: Chemist T. L. Williams creates Maybelline Mascara for his sister, Mabel.
  • 1915 CE: Portable lipstick invented.
  • 1920 CE: Film actors become fashion icons, transmitting new cosmetic styles and clothing to broad audiences. The popular look of the day was heavily darkened lashes, red lipstick and nail polish and the suntan, which becomes a new fashion statement thanks to French designer Coco Chanel.
  • 1930 CE: Max Factor launches first lip gloss. During of the Great Depression, brothers Charles and Joseph Revson, along with chemist Charles Lachman, found Revlon. The founders developed a new manufacturing process for nail enamel, using pigments instead of dyes.
  • 1936 CE: Eugene Schueller, founder of L’Oréal, invents sunscreen.
  • 1938 CE: Congress passes the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act
  • 1940 and World War II: Leg makeup is developed in response to shortages of stockings!
  • 1948 CE: Hairspray is invented.
    Modern cosmetics are compounded from a variety of ingredients, but not all of those ingredients would have been unknown to our ancestors; in fact, the zinc oxide found in many twenty-first century cosmetics was first used in the 18t

The Modern Era: 1950-Present

  • 1950 CE: Artificial tanning agents take off, and corporations such as Proctor & Gamble begin to sponsor daytime television programs that come to be known as "soap operas"
  • 1952 CE: Mum, the first company to commercially market deodorant, launches the first roll-on deodorant, which is inspired by the design of another recently invented product — the ballpoint pen.
  • 1958 CE: FDA publishes in the Federal Register its first list of substances Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS), which contains nearly 200 substances.
  • 1960 CE:Congress passes the Color Additive Amendment, which requires manufacturers to establish the safety of color additives in foods, drugs, and cosmetics.
    False eyelashes became popular. “Natural” products based on botanical ingredients, such as carrot juice and watermelon extract were introduced.
  • 1966 CE: Congress enacts the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act which requires all consumer products in interstate commerce to be honestly and informatively labeled, with FDA enforcing provisions on foods, drugs, cosmetics and medical devices.
  • 1970 CE: The environmental movement began to affect the use of some popular ingredients. The use of synthetic musk became popular in 1979, right after musk deer were put on the endangered species list and most countries banned the import of natural musk oil. Synthetic musk is now used almost exclusively over natural musk. Ambergris is also banned in the US, because it is a product of sperm whales, which have been on the endangered species list since 1972. Synthetic ambergris has been produced, but real ambergris is still sought-after by the perfume industry, worldwide.
  • 1989 CE: An FDA report in 1989 found that more than five percent of samples collected from counters in department stores were contaminated with mold, fungi, and pathogenic organisms. The FDA began to require cosmetics manufacturers to follow Good Manufacturing Practices that would ensure proper storage and treatment of raw materials and prevent contamination.