The Origins of Cosmetics

The word cosmetics derives from the Greek kosmetikētekhnē, meaning "technique of dress and ornament", from kosmētikos, "skilled in ordering or arranging" and from kosmos, which can mean both "order" and "ornament".

  • There is archeological evidence of cosmetics in ancient Egypt, China, Persia, India and Greece – and elsewhere throughout the world. Egyptians warded off the sun with fragrant oils and painted their eyes with mixtures of soot, powdered minerals and other ingredients that kept biting flies at bay. In the Old Testament of the Bible, wicked Queen Jezebel paints her eyelids and beauty treatments are described at length in the Book of Esther. Archaeologists have uncovered a variety of cosmetic tools and ornamental items in the Burnt City in northern Iran that date back to 2800 B.C.E.

  • Nail polish originated somewhere in China around 3000 B.C.E. A colored lacquer made of beeswax, gelatin, gum arabic and egg whites was painted over nails dyed pink or red with a mixture of alum and crushed flower petals.Different dynasties in China used nail colors to designate royalty; the Chou dynasty (600 B.C.E.) used gold and silver, later dynasties used red and black.

  • Eqyptians used a dye made from the henna plant to color their nails and even the tips of their fingers – the lower the social class, the lighter the color permitted, with none allowed a darker color than that worn by the highest ranks of Egyptian society: Queen Nefertiti, wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten, favored ruby-red nails, while Cleopatra was known for the dark rust red of her manicure.

  • Roman women used a variety of cosmetics, compounding some of their own and importing others, such as Egyptian kohl. Pale skin was seen as a sign of social stature, and women throughout the Italian peninsula turned to compounds containing white lead, chalk and other minerals to paint their faces; unfortunately, the lead was easily absorbed through the skin and the effect was ultimately toxic and sometimes fatal.

  • In the 20th century, a tightly sealed tin container holding the world’s oldest cosmetic face cream was discovered by archaeologists excavating a Roman temple on the banks of London’s river Thames - the gouges left by its original owner still intact in the aromatic white cream!

  • Cosmetics continue to play an important role in social interactions in the centuries after that unknown Roman lady lost her face cream, smoothing uneven skin tones, accentuating a fine pair of dark eyes or covering blemishes left by illness. Both men and women have utilized make-up to rise in social stature and appeal to an ideal of beauty common in their culture, a practice that continues today – where increasing numbers of men are using cosmetic products.