A brief history of skin care & cosmetics. Part 1: Ancient times | BareFacedTruth.com

A brief history of skin care & cosmetics. Part 1: Ancient times

Skin Care & Cosmetics: Then, Now, and in the Future. This BFT series will start at the beginning and explore the ancient world first. Subsequent postings with discuss more current times and conclude with what can be expected in the future. Our hope is to educate and place today’s products and science into a longer timeline and larger context.

In the beginning …

Although written recorded history dates back only six millennia, the history of skin decoration and care is likely much longer, perhaps as long as  mankind itself.  Using facial decoration to gain attention or intimidate enemies in battle are cultural constants throughout history.  Looking one’s best to improve social standing, denote superior rank in society, or improve the chances of coupling with the most attractive members of the opposite sex, also seem to be timeless concerns. Whether learned behaviors or something embedded in our genetic code (probably right next to the shopping gene), there is ample evidence that proves skin care and cosmetics have long been with us.

The basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter are apparently only slightly more important than rouge, lipstick and eyeliner. After all, the mirror was invented for a reason and sending distress signals using reflected sunlight is not it. The record shows the earliest mirrors (after reflecting surfaces of still dark water) were polished obsidian stones used in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) as long ago as 6000 BC.  Similar polished stones have been found in the Americas and date back to 2000 BC. Reflective copper discs date back to 4000 BC and the first metal backed glass mirror is 2000 years old. Apparently, people have been peering at themselves before the big night out on the town for a long, long time.

Egyptian cosmetology

The first archaeological evidence of cosmetics usage is from Ancient Egypt about 6000 years ago.  Not only was it an important aspect of their daily culture, it was deeply incorporated into their mummification and burial traditions. Archaeologists have found small clay pots of makeup in even the most humble tombs. Yet, as important as beauty was to the Egyptians, cosmetics served another purpose – protecting them from the elements, warding off the sun’s burning rays, and repelling insects. Application of makeup also served as a ritual to honor their gods or goddesses.

Ancient Egyptians had a variety of make-up formulations.  Metal ore, copper, and semi-precious stones were ground into powder for eye-shadows. Adding water, oil, or animal fat aided in adhesion and made the color darker, giving the eye a more dramatic look. Kohl, the dark eyeliner depicted in Egyptian statuettes, paintings, and mummy cases is a mixture of lead, copper, burned almonds, soot, and other ingredients. .. For lips, cheeks and nails, a clay called red ochre was ground and mixed with water. Makeup was stored in special jars that were kept in special makeup boxes. Women would carry their makeup boxes to parties and keep them under their chairs. The Egyptians believed make-up could ward off evil spirits and improve the sight so even the poor wore eye make-up

Henna is a natural dye still used for body decoration and hair coloring.  It comes from a particular shrub whose dried crushed leaves create a deep orange-red powder.  When mixed with water a paste is formed that is a temporary dye that colors the skin or hair for several weeks. Both women and men also used henna to stain their lips a deep red. Archaeologists report discovering traces of henna on the fingernails of mummified pharaohs. Today henna is used to decorate the skin of brides  in  many cultures, most notably India.

With no FDA around to ensure safety, the ancients created products using dangerous materials like mercury and white lead. According to findings published in the journal Analytical Chemistry the use of lead may have aided in combating eye infections like conjunctivitis.

Ancient Hebrews

The ancient Hebrews employed fragrance to consecrate their temples, altars, candles and priests. The book of Exodus (approximately 1,200 BC) provides a recipe for the Holy anointing oil given to Moses for the initiation of priests. It contains: Myrrh, cinnamon and calamus mixed with olive oil. Although the Mosaic Law decreed severe punishment to anyone who used Holy oils or incense in a secular fashion, some aromatics were less restricted. Two biblical references to perfume include Proverbs 27:9, “Ointment and perfume rejoice the heart,” and Song of Solomon 1:13-14,

“A bundle of myrrh is my beloved unto me; he shall lie all night between my breasts. My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire [henna] in the vineyards of En-gedi.”

Ancient Greeks

The Greeks invaded Egypt with an interest in their medical knowledge. Egyptian priests were unwilling to divulge the “secrets” of sacred Egyptian oils. Under pressure from Alexander the Great, the priests released disinformation and half-truths to prevent the knowledge from falling into the hands of the great unwashed masses [I know, sounds like some of our favorite online anti-aging sites]. Although, to be fair, the Greeks seemed to be more interested in the aphrodisiac qualities of the sacred oils than their medicinal value. In Greece, precious oils, perfumes, cosmetic powders, eye shadows, skin glosses, paints, beauty unguents, and hair dyes were in universal use. Export and sale of these items formed an important part of trade around the Mediterranean.

In ancient Rome, cosmetics were usually produced by female slaves called Cosmetae, hence the name.

Middle and Far Eastern Practices

Cosmetics were also used in Persia and what is now called the Middle East.  After Arab tribes converted to Islam and conquered those areas, cosmetic use was regulated in order to prevent people from disguising themselves for deceptive purposes or causing uncontrolled desire. There was no prohibition against cosmetics per se, only restrictions on their improper use. Deliberately using them to look “hot” was one of them.

So extensive was the use of cosmetics and fragrances in the Middle East that an early 24-volume medical encyclopedia, the Al-Tasrif, had an entire volume dedicated to cosmetics. It was later translated into Latin and used in the West. Cosmetics were considered a branch of medicine – “The Medicine of Beauty.” The text also dealt with perfumes, scented aromatics and incense. There were descriptions of ingredient rolled and pressed in special moulds, perhaps the earliest antecedents of present-day lipsticks and solid deodorants.

Around 3000 BCE, Chinese people began to stain their fingernails with gum arabic, gelatin, beeswax, and egg.  The colors used represented one’s social class: Chou dynasty royals wore gold and silver; later royals wore black or red. The lower classes were permitted to color their nails but forbidden to wear bright colors.

Beauty “painting” became all the rage in ancient China when legend has it a plum blossom drifted down onto the forehead of a princess, leaving a floral imprint. Ladies of the court were so impressed they too began to decorate their foreheads with delicate little plum blossom designs and soon it became commonplace. (Apparently, fashion fads started long before Madison Avenue began to create sophisticated campaigns to convince people they “needed” the latest trend in designs for jeans, shoes, purses, dresses, make up, etc.  The author’s opinion is that men are less susceptible to being swayed that they “need” something, but when they do, it just might be a red $200,000 sports car.)

In medieval Japan, geisha used crushed safflower petals to paint their eyebrows, edges of the eyes and lips. Sticks of bintsuke wax, a softer version of the sumo wrestlers’ hair wax, were used by geisha as a makeup base. Rice powder colored the face and back white while rouge contoured the eye socket and defined the nose. The geisha also used bird droppings as the base for lighter colors.

(You may say “yuck” but wait until you read what current thinking is for possible cosmetic and face cream ingredients in an upcoming BFT post).

Stay tuned for Part 2:  Cosmetics from the dark ages to the 20th century.


In medieval times, many church leaders in the Europe thought makeup was sinful and immoral. Women adopted the fad anyway. From the Renaissance until the 20th century, lower classes worked outside in agricultural jobs resulting in darker, suntanned skin.  The higher a person was in status, the more leisure time one could spend indoors, which kept their skin pale. To raise their perceived “status”, some people attempted to lighten their skin using white powder. Other products were used including white lead paint which contained arsenic. Many women died as a result. Queen Elizabeth I of England, often depicted in paintings as having a very pale complexion, was a well-known user of white lead. Her so-called “Mask of Youth” is seen in nearly all her portraits. Women in the 16th century went so far as to undergo “bleeding” to achieve pale skin.

Reminds us of the opposite trend today, where women line up to have UVA and UVB skin irradiation in order to achieve (the current standard) darker (tanned) tones. Seems like we are chronic malcontents with regards to skin coloration.


One Comment

  1. MariN. Montero says:

    Great review. I loved the ending real nice touch about standard of beauty. Nice Job!!!!

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