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The Face of Beauty—A Very Brief History of Makeup

Woman applying lip liner
Everett Collection/Shutterstock

For many people, men and women alike, makeup is an everyday part of their lives. You put it on before you head to the office, change it up for a night on the town, and add a little extra for photoshoots, drag shows, and Halloween.

It All Began in Ancient Egypt

While Egyptians may have rouged their cheeks to add to their beauty, they also used makeup and skincare to keep their skin healthy in the dry atmosphere in which they lived. Both men and women of ancient Egypt wore makeup, especially black eyeliner.

For the ladies, the makeup routine (much like today), started with preparing the skin. We use cleansers to begin with a clean palette, moisturizers to keep the skin supple, then add primer to help keep our makeup in place for extended periods. The ancient Egyptians cleaned and exfoliated (use dead sea salts) as well. They used oils, in place of our moisturizers, for softening the skin. The oils and greases they used are called unguents and were kept in jars.

What Egyptians Used to Make Their Makeup

The first makeup used by the Egyptians was made from the things that were available at the time. When you look at depictions of the ancient Egyptians and their gods, you will see some distinctive makeup features:

  • Black eyeliner—Those vivid almond eyes you see in Egyptian artwork come from the use of kohl. Kohl was created using a mineral called galena, which is a form of lead sulfide. The mineral itself was a blue-grey color. To get the black hue, they would mix in soot.
  • Green eyeshadow—The bright green eye color you may have envied a time or two in Egyptian paintings was created using malachite, a green copper ore. The green stone was ground to make pigment, then used to color the eyelids using a brush or finger.
  • Egyptian blush and lip color—The tinted clay ochre was used for rouge to brighten the cheeks and to stain the lips. Ochre and other minerals have been used all through ancient times for painting on cave walls and canvases — the face is just another type of canvas.
  • Nail polish and hair dye—Henna is still used as a hair dye and to decorate the skin with artistic drawings. In ancient Egypt, it was used not only to color the hair but also as nail polish— it was also found coating the fingernails of mummified pharaohs.

Post-Egyptian Makeup in Ancient Times

The Romans were another ancient people who used makeup to alter their appearance. Some of their tricks were the same as those used by the Egyptians, but they integrated other ways of changing how their skin looked.

  • They thickened their lashes, using burnt cork to thicken them.
  • They, too, used kohl for eyeliner. They mixed it with soot, not only for eyeliner but also to color eyebrows.
  • Red lips were achieved using a mix of minerals, red beetles, beeswax, and henna.
  • Baked-in-the-sun blush palettes were created with a combination of red lead, ochre, and rose petals.

To this day, it can be risky when it comes to the makeup we buy at the store. However, during the Renaissance, Italian women were donning lead paint to make their faces look pale. Some civilizations warranted the risks of makeup and chose not to use it. During the Elizabethan times in England, women used egg whites on their faces to get a glazed appearance and help cover wrinkles. Later, though, when Charles II was in reign, England’s women would start wearing heavy makeup to cover up their pale skin. (At the time, there were many illness epidemics, so people stayed indoors a lot, and thus, had pale skin.)

Makeup in the 1800s and Beyond

Even into the 1800s, lead, mercury, and even belladonna (as an eye brightener) were being used on the skin. Even with the death of a prominent eighteenth-century celebrity, Kitty Fisher, women continued using lead-based makeup, which may have been the cause of Fisher’s death.

Even when makeup became available at the local apothecary (the pharmacy), the items were still being created with dangerous products like those already mentioned. In the 1900s, women started making mascara from hot beads of wax, which would be the influence that birthed the Maybelline company.

Makeup hit a boom starting in the late 1920s. Audrey Hepburn’s cat eyes would become a must by the 1950s (and are still popular). The 1960s saw experiments with white lipstick and face paint. And, in our modern times, we often find trends from decades past coming back over and over again.

While there are now laws about using things like lead and mercury in makeup, questionable practices still exist in the beauty world. Depending on who you talk to, ingredients like petroleum jelly may be dangerous. Also, much controversy exists over makeup companies using animal testing. You can still make your own makeup, but with so many options, it’s easier just to head to Sephora or Ulta.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »