When we take a look back in history at cosmetics and skincare treatments, it is shocking how far we have come.  Over the centuries, women used burnt matches to darken their eyes, berries to stain their lips and young boys' urine to fade their freckles. They even swallowed ox blood in some misguided attempt to improve their complexions.

Homemade cosmetics with often harmful, toxic ingredients played a huge role in how people treated their skin. In some cultures, for example, women used arsenic, lead, mercury, and even leeches to give themselves the pale appearance deemed beautiful in the old days. Thankfully, we've come a long to enhance our looks.(1)

Some of the first human societies used paint to draw images on cave walls, then used the same paint on their facial features, sometimes to make them stand out, or sometimes to look more threatening. 

Ancient Egypt took cosmetics to a more serious level—even more than we do today. If you lived in Egypt in 3000 BC and were wealthy, you would have likely spent several hours each day to look your best. Makeup was used for aesthetic purposes—to bring out your features, but was also applied to protect the skin from the beating sun and intense heat. 

They were also really creative utilizing materials that were readily accessible such as semi-precious stones or ground up metals as “eyeshadow” as they would catch the light and project a shiny radiance. “Eyeliner,”for instance, were a mix of lead, almonds, soot, animal fat and copper.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans borrowed from the Egyptians and also placed a high value on skin care and makeup. Honey was used as a moisturizer, and oils and sand were used as a natural sunscreen (not sure how that really worked out for them, LOL) . Many of them had slaves known as Cosmetae who would exhaustively pull out each individual hair from chests, arms, legs, face, and backs of their masters, who wanted a smooth and sleek appearance. A day at the baths would include extensive care for all parts of the body, with fragrant oils and perfumes to soothe and gloss the skin after bathing.

Moving towards China—the first recorded skin care began in 1760 BC during the Shang dynasty. They valued a natural pale look at the time and used face powders made from lead and skin lighteners made from songyi mushrooms to get the desired look. (2)

More than 5,000 years ago, India invented Ayurveda, a lifestyle-focused form of medicine, using plants to promote good health and prevent aging. Interestingly, the Indian beauty industry started growing rapidly during the early 90s because of the increase of women entering the workforce. The participation of women in the workforce, especially non-traditional professional jobs, have had a slow start but as they continue to grow, it has given them a new reason to dress well and use more cosmetics as a part of their daily routines.

During the Elizabethan Era, bathing was not in fashion, in fact, men and women rarely washed their faces and body. To keep their skin looking pale, they would just add a new layer of powder over the old. As the cosmetic layer became difficult to wash off, people started experimenting with everything from rainwater or donkey’s milk to red wine or urine to take their makeup off (DISGUST!).

The rise of modern skincare started with the formation of the FDA in 1906 to regulate the industry. During this time, L’Oreal, Elizabeth Arden, Max Factor and Maybelline all launched a range of skin care products and the cosmetic world as we now know it, began to take shape.(2)

L'Oreal was born in 1909, sunscreen was invented in 1944, Estee Lauder debuted its cosmetics line in 1946, and Clarins, Ponds, Oil of Olay, and Clinique were all launched in the 1950s. In the 1920s, pale complexion gave way to a healthy bronzed glow. Suntanning and self-tan products became fashionable until WWII when skincare was scarce and women had to be inventive.

The 1960s saw technology leaps, including in the skincare industry, where lasers were introduced to treat skin conditions. In the 1970s chemical peel treatments were all the rage and performed by doctors in safe environments.

The second half of the century saw a rise in plant-based and "natural" skincare with brands such as Sisley in the 1970s and Burt’s Bees in the 1980s. The 1990s saw a rise of doctor brands where science and technology became prominent and key ingredients such as AHAs and Retinols took over the skincare stage. (3)

Today, skincare is safe and diversified, and new trends still emerge as innovation becomes stronger than ever.  The ongoing trend in today’s society, particularly in more affluent cultures where they can afford premium, organic, and non-toxic products/ food, is highly focused on health and science in conjunction with efficacy. Do your research and [in my opinion] stay away from at home remedies.  

  1. https://www.webmd.com/beauty/history-makeup
  2. https://thewebster.us/editorial/must-read/history-of-skincare 
  3. https://shilpaahuja.com/indian-beauty-industry-evolution/
Written by Allyson Welch
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