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.