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A long history of cosmetics

You might think that cosmetics were only invented in the last 100 years. Actually, they have been around almost just about as long as human beings have existed.

Men and cosmetics. A story on its own. And a short one too. This may be the assumption. The number of men who use cosmetics regularly has increased enormously in recent years. Do you still remember those times when machos and tough guys, at least in movies and television, were the ones that called the shots? Schimanski, Rocky & Co. didn't need cosmetics to make a difference, let alone look better, did they? Natural, tough, sometimes a bit rugged. That was enough for them. Maybe pampering themselves or even using make-up simply wasn’t "masculine" enough. Nobody wanted to talk about it. So, let’s lay it on the line now. The situation today is completely different.

History books show that from the very beginning, cosmetics were important for both men and women. Not only were cosmetics used to nourish, they were also decorative. Men used to really put on make-up.

What does cosmetics actually mean?

The word "cosmetics" comes from the ancient Greek "kosmētikos". "Kosmos" essentially means "order", "ornament", "decorate". The current legal definition of a cosmetic is clearly defined in the EU Cosmetics Regulation ((EC) No. 1223/2009). Substances can only be designated as cosmetics when they are intended to come into external contact with the human body (skin, nails, hair), teeth and oral mucosa.

 ‘Cosmetic product’ means

any substance or mixture intended to be placed in contact with the external parts of the human body (epidermis, hair system, nails, lips and external genital
organs) or with the teeth and the mucous membranes of the oral cavity with a view exclusively or mainly to cleaning them, perfuming them, changing their appearance, protecting them, keeping them in good condition or correcting body odours

Cosmetics’ jobs are:

  • to clean
  • to give fragrance
  • to change looks
  • to protect
  • to maintain in good condition
  • to influence body odor

The EU Cosmetics Regulation also specifies exactly which preservatives, sun filters and other ingredients may and may not be used as a cosmetic product. It’s also the main regulatory framework for cosmetic products having laws regulating, for example, advertising claims, label requirements, safety evaluations, and product registrations.

Beauty and perfection

If we consider the history of cosmetics, often ancient Egypt immediately pop into our minds. It is considered the birth of cosmetics. Even though oils, ointments and colors were used during the Stone Age by cavemen to nourish their skin, the Egyptians were the ones who passed on their knowledge in written word. They wrote about personal hygiene and changing their appearance with make-up. Cosmetics were not just for women.

Both men and women were committed to personal hygiene. Beauty has been highlighted through the images of Nefertiti and Cleopatra, while the charcoal-painted eyes of the pharaohs are also well-known.

During this time period, pigments were the foundation for the oils and waxes they used. For example, malachite stone, lapis or vermilion were often added. Hygiene was also very important for Egyptians and they were known to have cleaned themselves regularly. Fragrant ingredients were also used as perfume.

Cosmetics and medicine merged

It’s good to know that they did not separate cosmetics from medicine. Therefore, the famous thick black eyeliner around their eyes was probably primarily make-up that protected them from inflammation, insect bites and the intense sun found in hot Egypt. Diverse toxic substances were also used. We are assuming they were ignorant about how dangerous they were. Yet in their research, scientists have shown that these substances, some containing lead, were added deliberately as medicine. They were used to act against parasites while activating the immune system at the same time.

Aloe vera’s healing properties were also probably discovered by the Egyptians. It was used for both skin and beauty care. Nefertiti and Cleopatra swore by this "Plant of Immortality".

In general, beauty and the art of perfection were paramount in ancient Egypt. Personal hygiene, cleanliness and aesthetic changes using decorative make-up (coal, eyeshadow) were an integral part of their culture and belief system.

Oils, ointments and fragrances were not only used for those who were alive, these ingredients have also been found in the pyramids’ tombs of pharaohs. Through embalming the bodies, they could be "eternally beautiful" in the afterlife.

Healthy mind - healthy body

Ancient Egyptian knowledge landed in the hands of ancient Greeks and was further developed. The Greeks liked to use olive oil and honey-based cosmetics. "Healthy mind in a healthy body" became a main component of the Hippocratic philosophy. Personal hygiene also played a major role here. Besides using ointments and oils, exercise and eating healthy became important too.

One of the most important and famous quotes by Greek physician Hippocrates, "Let food be thy medicine", is also part of the oath medical doctors worldwide swear on today. He is considered the father of modern or clinical medicine and documented cosmetic use of herbs and plants as well.

More information

Numerous recipes from that time-period were written and passed down through generations. Whoever is interested in the famous “Papyrus Ebers”, a medical papyri, can find it at:

Science in Ancient Egypt

and 

Papyrus-Project 

to read all available information about this papyrus.

The Romans adopted this "body cult" as well. Oils, honey, fruit and ointments with perfumes were used. Smelling good meant good practices in ancient Rome and became ever more important.

Personal care and nourishing cosmetics continued to play a major role. Baths and barber shops ensured hygiene, health and good looks. Herbal compresses, facial steam baths, infusions and much more were offered.

The ancient civilizations in the Mediterranean regions were not the only ones who developed cosmetics - we can find indications all over the world. During that time period, cosmetics were important in many countries such as China, India and Indonesia.

It started to stink

As Christianity gained more and more influence, the importance of cosmetics, especially those that were decorative, became less important. Taking care of an individual’s outer appearance was frowned upon and instead the focus was on a person’s inner self. Ointments and oils were only supposed to be used for medical purposes. Vanity and the pursuit of beauty could no longer be afforded. Epidemics led to the closure of popular bathing establishments. And this was a disaster for personal hygiene.

During the Renaissance, the perspective on decorative cosmetics changed again. Men and women placed greater emphasis on their appearance and therefore the face became an important focus once more. 

Creams, powders and perfumes found their way into people’s homes, especially among the nobility. In order to have the fashionable skin color of palest white, it was trendy to use make-up to make this possible, even though their health was jeopardized . Toxic white lead was often an ingredient used to ensure their desired complexion. “One must suffer to be beautiful” is a saying that could have fit well during these times. "Plasters" or patches known as mouches, were popular with the ladies. They were used to hide blemishes, scars and instead turn them into a feature. Also, the contrast to the pale white appearance was thought to make the skin beautiful and was even used to flirt.

This was not the period in history where hygiene had anything to do with anything. Clean water wasn’t even used. It was used to wash clothes, but not yourself. Powder and perfume were applied in layers, day after day, in order to cover-up and bear all those bad body odors.

Back on Track

Today’s relationship to cosmetics and specifically to personal hygiene is generally back on track. Even today, though, there are extremes and trends. The demand for personal care products is more now than any time in our history, as are the opportunities to use cosmetics for both skin care and enhancing or changing our appearance.

Every person can shape themselves, do something good for themselves and feel fulfilled without their health being at risk. Nobody has to justify why they put on make-up or why they don’t. And similar to ancient Egyptians, today’s cosmetics can be used by both women AND men.