The History of Makeup

by Corinne Shoemaker

Have you ever wondered how makeup found its way into modern use? Beauty has been important in cultures all over the world for thousands of years, and makeup has existed for just as long. Throughout history, we’ve found ways to use some pretty strange items to alter our appearance. Read on to learn more about how makeup has evolved over the centuries.

1. Ancient Makeup Practices

Makeup began in ancient Egypt with the use of kohl. Women mixed together burnt almonds, copper, lead, ash, and ochre to give their eyes an almond shape. They believed that doing so would ward off evil spirits. While it may not have had quite that effect, the lead in the mixture is thought to have helped prevent infectious diseases. To give their faces color and definition, Egyptian women used a mixture of copper and lead ore called galena mesdemet. Later, in ancient Greece and Rome, women employed the use of minerals and stones to paint their faces, and they started to treat zits by applying butter or barley flour to blemishes.

Nail polish became popular in ancient China as a way to distinguish people among their social classes. They used substances like gelatin, egg, and beeswax to do this. Those who wore gold and silver were Chou Dynasty royals, and royals beneath them would wear black or red. No one else was permitted to use bright colors on their nails.

At this point, makeup began to dull, but its effects became lethal…

2. Makeup in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

During the Middle Ages, colored lips, eyes, and cheeks became a thing of the past. At least for upper-class women in Elizabethan England who wanted to whiten their complexions. In the beginning, this was done by using egg whites, but things took a turn for the worse during the Renaissance period. It was then that women began using a more effective – and dangerous – substance known as Venetian ceruse. This was a mixture of lead and vinegar that whitened the skin but caused hair loss, muscle paralysis, and sometimes death. Even Queen Elizabeth I used it. She called it “the Mask of Youth.”

3. Makeup From the 19th Century to Now

We finally started to realize the toxic effects of lead during the 19th century and began using zinc oxide instead. Colorful makeup was still considered inappropriate, unless used by actors.  Max Factor, a Hollywood businessman, took advantage of this in the 1920s by advertising it to women who wanted to look like their favorite celebrities. He also invented lip gloss and eye brow pencils.

In the 1950s, lipstick and nail polish exploded onto the market. Charles Revson, co-founder of Revlon, went head-to-head with a chemist named Hazel Bishop who created a more reliable lipstick than her competitor. Unfortunately for Bishop, Revson had better marketing skills. Popular brands like Maybelline, Clinique, and Origins also entered the market at this time. As competition escalated, so did the quality and variety of makeup products, and we learned to appreciate color once again.

It’s interesting to see how standards of beauty have changed over the centuries. It reminds us that there truly is no one definition of the word because we are always changing our perspective. As that old cliché goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.