History of Cosmetics in a Nutshell

Men and women alike have been trying to make themselves more beautiful in their own eyes by applying various substances since forever. We only know about what was written down, of course, but I’m confident I can state that even where no record exists, someone was still smearing daubs of clay on their face, berry juice on their lips… or crushed beetles. I mean, we still do that last, so why not?

I’ll get the first misconception out of the way right up front. When I tell people that I am a cosmetic chemist, they immediately think ‘lipsticks, eyeshadows, foundations…’ but no. Cosmetics encompasses far, far more than the subcategory also referred to as ‘color cosmetics’ and while I did whip up a lovely little concealer in the lab this week, most of what I do is lotions, potions, and cleansers. As it has been since the birth of Modern Cosmetics in approximately 1779 with the discovery of glycerin. For those of you who want to deep-dive, there’s a great timeline at Cosmetics and Skin. About a decade after the discovery of that raw material which is found in so many of our modern cosmetics, the marketing of Pears Transparent Soap opened the doors to a way to clean yourself without the harsh stripping action of highly alkaline soaps.

Fast forward to about 1870, when the cosmetic industry began to really boom. The first lipstick in a tube came out this year. Prior to this, lip color was in a pot and was applied with fingers or brushes. But it wasn’t only the tiny domestic engineering feats that were going on at this time. It was the era of the chemist. It was a time in the world when the masses were finally able to afford little luxuries, and what women wanted was soft blemish-free skin and later in life, a youthful wrinkle-free appearance. Sounds familiar, yes? The interesting thing to me is that looking at the treasure trove of raw materials being developed then, is how many I have on the shelves in my lab. Better living through modern chemistry, but sometimes we forget just how far back the ‘modern’ era stretches. I have seen claims by cosmetic chemists working today that there have been no real innovations in cosmetics in decades. They… aren’t wrong, as the technologies have advanced, but the molecules remain the same.

That’s not to say that the old way was better. We have learned so much. Today, we’d shudder at the thought of using thallium as a depilatory, but even when it was banned for being a known deadly poison, there were those who argued it should be kept and just used more carefully, as it was effective. Arsenic, another well-known heavy metal ingredient in cosmetics, still crops up in places around the world as does mercury – mercury is actually used in creams quite a lot, and I’ve seen cautions against buying certain types of cosmetics online as you might get something containing mercury if it was made outside the US or EU. Leaving aside the possibility of direct poisoning from something you put on your body, there’s also the much more modern concern of what’s growing in your cosmetic pot, in terms of bacteria and mold. That lead to the development of preservatives, and much safer products, death and blindness due to contamination having occurred. Sadly, through the internet’s spread of nonsense, the safest and best of these are now under attack and are being replaced by chemicals that don’t do as good a job, and have to be included in higher amounts which increases the risk of irritation.

1938 Cosmetic chemistry students making up a cold cream using beeswax, mineral oil, distilled water and borax in an adult education course in New York (New York Historical Society)

Where did that soap box come from? I’ll step down from it now, then look at it thoughtfully. The history of cosmetics is complex, and fascinating, and gives us an insight into human nature. As a writer, I don’t have the urge to apply myself to writing historical tales, although it would not be hard to plot murder mysteries around some of the things happening in beauty salons of yore! However, I do see parallels with the emergence of any new technologies. I think you could take, for instance, patent medicines (ie snake oil) which also made many beauty claims, and use that to create a fascinating science fiction plot.

If you’d like recipes from days gone by… and I don’t actually recommend them, as I’ve tried a few and some of the things they call for are either unobtainable or we now know aren’t safe, like borax. But if you’re curious! I commend to you The Ugly Girl Papers, published in 1874. The site I’ve linked a few times in this article, Cosmetics and Skin, is an excellent resource for a deep dive, or just a quick look at some peculiar skin or hair fad.

Header image: 1927 Permalight used in a facial routine. Red or blue glass screens could be attached to the light source when needed (Blood, 1927).

10 comments

  1. In the 19th century, make-up and cosmetics were two things. Make-up was paint. Cosmetics actually improved your looks, such as a lotion to moisturize it.

    The reason for the semantic drift is left as an exercise for the reader. 0:)

  2. Kohl is recorded as being the first makeup by the Egyptians. They had a lot of other “recipes”, as well. And the nobles shaved their heads and bodies to prevent lice, and then wore the braided wigs made from other hair. Yes, makeup and skin care have been around for a LONG time! Thanks for the great walk down (far past my) memory lane!.

  3. Absolutely fascinating.
    When you mentioned thallium as a depilatory (which I did NOT know), I thought instantly of Botox! Injecting botulism into your facial muscles to make wrinkles go away. Botulism! The very idea. I wonder what the long-term effects will be.

    1. I’ve seen some questions about the short-term use of Botox™. Freezing your facial muscles seems in some cases to interfere with the ability to read other people’s expressions. Could it cause permanent perception disconnections if the procedure is used for an extended period of time? I’m not sure if there’s a way to rigorously test that observation, but it raises some interesting SF questions for future “what if”s.

      1. Permanent perception disconnections are interesting in off topic ways.

        Rigorously testing for aggregate mental effects tends to be difficult, and often runs into ethical issues if you have something strong enough to be measurable.

  4. > 1938 Cosmetic chemistry students making up a cold cream using beeswax, mineral oil, distilled water and borax in an adult education course in New York

    The same ingredients are used in some bullet lubricants by people who shoot black powder rifles. Borax is relatively new in bullet lubes; smokepole shooters took notice after publication of a DoD paper on using borax powder as an extreme pressure lubricant on some machining processes.

    1. Just took a glance at the cosmetics section of my 1927 Hensley’s Formulas for Home and Workshop – a rough count has borax as an ingredient in at least 4 out of 5 of the recipes. Several others call for boric acid.

  5. Somewhat off-topic but Chelsea Quinn Yarbro had an interesting essay on the historical person that she based her fictional vampire (Saint Germain) on.

    The historical person was said to have lived for an extraordinary number of years.

    But Yarbro speculated that his lifespan while impressive wasn’t extraordinary if we assumed that he was much younger (but still an adult) than people thought he was when he showed up in records.

    Her thought was that he used cosmetics to make himself look older than he actually was.

    IE He was just eighteen when started out instead of thirty (as people assumed he was).

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