Cosmetics Then and Now: A Brief History of Modern Beauty

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In today’s social media obsessed world, it’s far too easy to get caught up in the notion that striving for lofty beauty standards is a modern invention, rather than being something that may be innate in human nature. With cosmetic surgery on the rise, and cases of body dysmorphia (more info) and eating disorders running rampant in both the younger and more mature demographics, it can almost seem as though we’ve become a more superficial society as a whole.

However, that mindset couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, humans have been trying to manipulate their appearances for thousands of years, and the desire to look our very best transcends both time and even gender constructs, says ScientificAmerican. Furthermore, wanting to look attractive – by any definition of the term – is only human in nature. Indeed, it’s not even our fellow humankind that exclusively desires these ambitious goals, though we’re the ones usually scrutinizing it under the social microscope.

Rather than lambasting those of us who aren’t afraid to smudge a bit of eyeshadow on our lids or add a pop of color to our cheeks with rouge, though, it can introduce a more productive conversation about these ideals by carefully dissecting and analyzing them. By taking a casual stroll throughout the historic application of beauty products, and recognizing the role they’ve played in society throughout the ages, we can also grow to better understand our own selective usage of them today.

Beauty in Ancient Civilizations

Before we can truly understand how today’s beauty standards have claimed their status in recent years, we first need to take a closer look at the other cultures that have used cosmetics and other beauty products long before us. The earliest reports of the use of these beauty products can be traced back to 10,000 BCE, back in ancient Egypt. Men and women were known to apply an assortment of creams, oils, and even oxidized minerals to their skin and hair to change their appearances.

Not only did these products offer a cosmetic advantage for the wearer, but they also had hygienic and health benefits, as well. The blazing desert heat made for dry skin, and applying these creams helped protect the wearer from the damaging effects of the sun’s rays. Some could even help combat odor-causing bacteria, warding off infection. Applying a layer of kohl (a concoction of burnt almonds, ash, and other ores) to the upper and lower eyelids helped protect against glare and even possibly cataracts.

The Stigma of Using Beauty Products

Just as some of us today may regard the application of cosmetics and other beauty products as signs of vanity and superficiality, ancient cultures also held them in disdain. While Romans weren’t ones to veer away from using tallow to moisturize their skin and sheep’s blood to stain their fingernails, they also believed that using cosmetics on the face was an indication that the wearer worked in an occupation of ill repute. To use them was also to misrepresent oneself, which was also regarded with distaste.

Many writings from this era support these beliefs, including letters from philosophers denouncing them, and stage plays lampooning those who used them. Nonetheless, the use of cosmetics continued to prevail, and the art of subtle application started to make itself known as people doggedly continued to reach for their favorite beauty products. These beliefs continued on into the Middle Ages, when the Crusades brought perfumes to Europe, and arsenic and lead to lighten the skin surged in popularity in Italy and other countries.

Improving the Safety of Cosmetics

Eventually fair skin fell out of vogue in various parts of the world, but that was slowly transitioned to another dangerous habit: tanning. This led to an increase in skin cancer, melasma, and fine lines and wrinkles. Skin lightening creams were gradually traded out for sunblock in some parts of the world as dueling mentalities about the desirability of complexion competed for footing, and in turn, society gradually started to recognize the danger of the products they were applying to their bodies.

In the past, cosmetic products were arguably quite crude and rudimentary, with various ingredients thrown together in a pot for later application to the body, hair, and face. While effective enough to serve their purpose at the moment, they still fell short in many ways. Granules of product could leave an unpleasant texture on the surface of the skin, and the failure to properly emulsify them could give rise to dangerous bacteria growth that could cause acne breakouts and other infections. 

Mixing techniques slowly started to improve, and the introduction of the use of a high shear homogenizer in mixing made for smoother, more cosmetically elegant products to line store shelves. These products could go on more smoothly, and carefully mixing them with the right cocktail of preservatives made it less likely that germs and other contaminants could infiltrate them. These superior products made for better safety, as well as improved confidence in the wearer.

Not a Modern Invention After All

No doubt, cosmetics have come a long way since their advent. No longer are we applying dubious products to our bodies, though lingering traces of questionable cosmetics do still occasionally make their rounds in retail avenues. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that we’ve come a long way since our ancestors first used the ashy end of a burnt stick to improve their appearance – and as much as we want to downplay it, the fascination with beauty remains prevalent even today.