The products you reach for every day feature cutting-edge technology to cleanse and hydrate the skin, reduce wrinkles and beautify your face. We’re lucky to live in an age when safe, effective products are easily accessible. Historically, however, this wasn’t always the case. Here, we explore the not so pretty origins of beauty and the pioneers of modern-day makeup and skincare.
Beauty and ancient civilizations
Though they didn’t have our technology at their fingertips, ancient civilizations were able to create clever, though sometimes dangerous, beauty concoctions. Nail polish originated in China around 3,000 B.C. The Chinese painted their nails with a polish made of gum arabic, egg whites, gelatin and beeswax. Ancient Egyptians made soap, soaked in milk baths to soften their skin, exfoliated with a mixture of crushed pumice stones and water and moisturized with olive oil.
During this time, Egyptians also experimented with dramatic eye makeup. They smeared colorful malachite and galena over their faces and rimmed their eyes in kohl. Kohl was a paste of soot, animal fat and lead.
Lead was used in cosmetics for hundreds of years. Ancient Greeks slathered lead all over their faces to whiten skin and clear blemishes. Centuries passed before people learned that lead is a dangerous ingredient with devastating side effects. Documented complications ranged from scarring to infertility to madness.
Dangerous beauty, 15th to 20th century
Beginning in the 15th century, the popularity of pale, white skin spread across Europe. Fair-skinned women hailed from the upper echelon of society, spending their days indoors — instead of laboring in the sun like the tanned-skin, low-class workers. So, the demand for lead-based skincare and makeup soared. Lead was used in various ways. It was:
- combined with vinegar to make whitening foundation
- the main ingredient in early facial peels
- used to remove freckles
Queen Elizabeth I, one of the most iconic women of her time, suffered from facial disfigurement after repeated use of lead-based whitening foundation. It’s said she was so upset over her mottled face that she banished all mirrors from her castle. The Queen was actually spared when you consider that lead could cause muscle paralysis and death.
It wasn’t until 1869 that the use of lead in cosmetics was challenged. The American Medical Association published “Three Cases of Lead Palsy from the Use of a Cosmetic Called Laird’s Bloom of Youth.’” This case study paved the way for the formation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1906.
Three decades later, Ruth DeForest Lamb, the FDA’s chief education officer, published a book that documented the serious complications from beauty products. This prompted the passing of the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act in 1938, putting cosmetics and medical devices under the FDA’s control.
Beauty pioneers, 1907 to 1950s
At the turn of the century, the beauty industry boomed. Many of the popular companies and best-selling products of today first launched during these years.
1907: French chemist Eugene Schueller creates the first safe commercial hair dye and forms L’Oreal.
1909: Max Factor, often called the father of modern makeup, opens his first store in the theater district in Los Angeles.
1910: Elizabeth Arden Salon opens on Fifth Avenue in New York City. In co-creating her signature face cream with a chemist, Elizabeth Arden (whose real name is Florence Nightingale Graham) revolutionizes the beauty industry. Science-based skincare becomes the standard, and the modern day spa is introduced.
1914: Max Factor perfects the first type of makeup for film — a “thinner greasepaint in cream form, packaged in a jar and created in 12 precisely graduated shades,” according to Procter & Gamble.
1917: Maybelline founder T.L. Williams launches the first modern mascara after getting the idea from his sister Maybel.
1920s: Eyebrow pencils become popular, thanks to Hollywood starlet Greta Garbo. The new ingredient, hydrogenated cottonseed oil, helps the pencil glide on more easily.
- 1932: Brothers Charles and Joseph Revson and chemist Charles Lachman create Revlon and launch a new kind of nail enamel.
- 1936: L’Oreal’s founder Schueller invents sunscreen.
- 1944: Miami pharmacist Benjamin Green develops sunscreen for soldiers fighting in World War II. The formula becomes Coppertone Suntan Cream.
- 1950s: Max Factor introduces the modern-day mascara with a tube and wand applicator. Hazel Bishop creates the first long-lasting lipstick.
Beauty trends, 1960s to today
Over the next 40 years, beauty trends continued to change with the times.
- 1960s: This decade brings exaggerated eye makeup and matte skin, influenced by style icon Twiggy.
- 1970s: As the feminist movement flourishes, focus shifts from color cosmetics to a natural look. Skincare takes a more prominent role as women toss out their tubes of red lipstick and liquid eye liner.
- 1980s: Women flood the workforce, bringing with them full cases of cosmetics, using dramatic colors to enhance the eyes, cheeks and lips.
- 1990s: The natural look is back, with skincare again taking top priority. Makeup companies increase their efforts to market products designed to achieve the “no makeup” look.
- Today: Beauty trends are swifter than ever, changing with the seasons. But the line between skincare and cosmetics has begun to blur with both featuring cutting-edge ingredients that aim to improve the look and feel of the skin. Many companies are also answering the latest consumer demand for natural and organic ingredients.
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