The History of the Use of Makeup

In contrast to popular belief, the use of makeup is not a modern-day trend, and it may have started long before the Egyptians. In an archaeological find in Spain, shells were discovered that scientist believe were used to hold ancient forms of makeup. Leading archaeologist believe the first use of makeup may have been by the Neanderthals as much as 50,000 years ago. Prior to the discovery of the Neanderthal stained shells in Spain, it was believed that the Egyptians were first to use makeup starting around 10,000 BCE.

It then spread to Ancient Greece and Rome. There is even a reference of kings wearing makeup in the old testament, Ezekiel, 23:40 “And furthermore, that ye have sent for men to come from far, unto whom a messenger was sent; and, lo, they came: for whom thou didst wash thyself, paintedst thy eyes, and deckedst thyself with ornaments”.

Makeup was found to be used in Persia, and Japan. After that, decline in use is apparent until about 1000 AD.

It then begins to reappear in the Middle Ages, but later to be found unacceptable by the Victorian Age. That did not last long however, in 1908 Selfridges openly sell makeup to the public. After 1870 the popularity of makeup never dies down.

Until recently, it was thought that modern humans were the first to use makeup. This theory has since changed. During an archaeological dig in Spain, researchers discovered “pigment stained” sea shells that is now believed to be remains of makeup. In an interview with BBC, archeologist Joao Zilhao states “this is the first secure evidence for their use of cosmetics; the use of these complex recipes is new.

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It’s more than body painting.” The following is an excerpt from the PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), January 19, 2010Wednesday, “Two sites of the Neanderthal-associated Middle Paleolithic of Iberia, dated to as early as approximately 50,000 years ago, yielded perforated and pigment-stained marine shells.

At Cueva de los Aviones, three umbo-perforated valves of Acanthocardia and Glycymeris were found alongside lumps of yellow and red colorants, and residues preserved inside a Spondylus shell consist of a red lepidocrocite base mixed with ground, dark red-to-black fragments of hematite and pyrite. A perforated Pecten shell, painted on its external, white side with an orange mix of goethite and hematite, was abandoned after breakage at Cueva Antón, 60 km inland.” This exciting discovery may change the history of makeup forever.


Scientists speculate that Egyptians may have used perfumes, oils to protect the skin from harsh desert environment, and facial creams as early as 10,000 BCE. It wasn’t until around 4000 BCE that the Egyptians begin to use makeup heavily. Eyeliner was a favorite among the Ancient Egyptian people, enjoying dark colors such as green and black, eyes were shaped like almonds. The green was made from malachite, an oxide of copper. In the Old Kingdom it was applied generously from the eyebrow to the base of the nose. In the Middle Kingdom, green eye paint continued to be used for the brows and the corners of the eyes, but by the New Kingdom green had been superseded by black.

Black eye paint, kohl, was made of a sulfide of lead called galena. Its use continued to the Coptic period. By that time, soot was the basis for the black color. Both malachite and galena were milled on a palette with either gum and/or water to make a paste. Sticks with rounded ends made of wood, bronze, obsidian or glass were carefully used to apply eye make-up. Red ochre mixed with fat or gum resin was thought to be used a lipstick or face paint. However the makeup used by the Ancient Egyptians was highly toxic due to its lead base, wearing makeup was important to the Egyptians.

It was believed that beauty would bring them closer to the gods. Makeup also protected the eyes of the Ancient Egyptians, eyeliners applied heavily helped to prevent bacteria and microscopic particles from entering the eyes. Mummies have been discovered that were adorned with makeup before being wrapped and buried. The Egyptians closely guarded makeup recipes from surrounding neighbors, until the appearance of the Greeks.

The Bronze Age

In the time of the Bronze Age the use of makeup, especially kohl, was very popular. Kohl is a mixture of soot and other materials used primarily by Middle Eastern, North African, Sub-Saharan African, South Asian women, and sometimes men, to darken the eyelids and as mascara for the eyelashes. Mothers used eyeliner on the babies to prevent “evil eye”, it was believed that kohl had medicinal properties and protected the eyes from irritants and disease. Grecian women from this time period also like to paint their faces with white lead and employed crushed mulberries, red ochre, or red iron as rouge for added redness to cheeks and lips.

Archaeologists have discovered various mediums of make-up in Ancient Persia. The masks and statues exhumed at Haft Tappeh in Khuzestan, display blackened and extended their eyebrows, reddened lips and cheeks and lined eyes to the eyebrows. Archaeological finds dating back to the first millennium BCE, show the diversity and abundance of cosmetics and ornaments in this period, suggesting that this era was the peak of the art of decoration and makeup. Women were so attached to makeup during this era they were often buried with their makeup.

Ancient Rome

It took some time before the use of makeup took off in Ancient Rome, unlike the Greeks romans preferred to be makeup free. However the idea of wearing makeup changed in Rome and soon it set the precedence for social appeal and status quo among society. Roman philosopher Plautus (254-184 BC) wrote, “A woman without paint is like food without salt.” Ancient Romans widely used cosmetics by the middle of the 1st century AD. Roman- Greco women adorned the face with chalk or white lead powder for a lightening the appearance of the face. Rouge on the cheeks or lips and Kohl for darkening eyelids and eyelashes were part of daily life for women, especially prostitutes and the wealthy. Slaves known as “Cosmetaes” were usually women and were revered for the skills in makeup application.

At the time quality of makeup was poor by today’s standards. Application of makeup was time consuming and need to be reapplied several times throughout the day depending on the weather thus enhancing the need for Cosmetaes. Archaeologists excavating a Roman temple on the banks of London’s River Thames discovered the world’s oldest cosmetic face cream, with the finger marks of its last user, 2,000 years ago. After the fall of the Roman Empire the use of makeup subsided until the Middle Ages.

Middle Ages

Makeup or a way to change the color of the face did not really start to reemerge in Northern Europe until the 14th century. Yet still, cosmetics were not generally worn beyond the loutish trades. A superb source for tips on beauty instruction in the 16th century is a discussion guide referred to as “A dialogue of the faire perfectioning of ladies.” It is written as a discussion between two women, Raffaella and Margaret. In this recipe described by Raffaella a toxic mixture is shared, “…One takes pure silver and quicksilver and, when they are ground in the mortar, one adds ceruse and burnt rock alum, and then for a day they are ground together again and afterwards moistened with mastic until all is liquid; then all is boiled in rain water and, the boiling done, one casts some sublimate upon the mortar; this is done three times and the water cast on the fourth time is kept together with the body of the lye.

And this is used oftentimes among ladies who have no great means to spend”. Because imports were so expensive women of meager means turned to recipes like these to create the makeup that was desired. Crystalline Mercuric Sulphide is the color of Vermillion Red, when mixed with egg whites, gum arabic, and the milk of green figs it is applied to the face for desired color. Red Ocher, Madder, Cochineal, Brazil Wood were some of the other ingredients that had been permeated in water to create other hues of red, and applied with fish paste. It has also been proposed that kohl was also used to accentuate the eyes.

1300 1600 AD

Around the time of the 1300’s women begin to wear egg whites on the face to create the appearance of pale skin, while others considered it to be a health risk because it was thought to prevent circulation to the face. During the Elizabethan era only aristocrats wore makeup. Queen Elizabeth 1 of England is known for helping to make the face whitening powder popular during the 1500’s. It is said she created the look known as “the mask of youth”, with her heavy use of white lead powder. Even though less toxic powders that were arsenic based were available, the white lead powder remained very popular. Uncooked egg white were still employed to give the face a glazed pale look that helped to hide wrinkles, and sometime mixed with other ingredients to create light shades used as cover-up on the face.


Makeup, cosmetics, and perfumes had become so popular by the 18th century that the English Parliament passed a law announcing that any woman who “shall impose upon, seduce and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s subjects by virtue of scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, iron stays, hoops, high- heeled shoes, or bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty against witchcraft, and the marriage… shall be null and void”. But by the 19th century the use of makeup was frowned upon. Leaving most women to apply makeup in secrecy, this did not pertain to actresses as they were allowed to be powdered.

Because pale skin was desired women did not work outside and hung heavy curtains over windows for risk of suntan. Pale skin established status quo with in the community, it meant you could afford to stay indoors and not work outside. Even though use of makeup was not widely accepted, Rimmel made the first commercial non-toxic mascara in 1820. Leading the way in mascara, Rimmel is still known today as the name of mascara. The popularity of photography on the rise in 1870 helped paved the way for makeup as we know it today. Understanding that the photos would be lifelong proof of one’s appearance, women demanded to have faces painted white the deep reds for lipstick and heavy mascara before a photo sitting would begin.

1900 1950

In 1908 Selfridges no longer desired to sell makeup in secrecy and put it on public display for customers. Beginning in 1909 Canadian businesswoman Elizabeth Arden begins to build a cosmetics empire in the United States, with the development of tinted creams and rouges. She is also known for the coordinating color idea, matching nail polish, lipstick, and blush The urge to hide to use of makeup begins to slowly dissipate with the rise of Ballet. With ballet came the rise in demand of kohl and other items such as gilded eye shadows in vibrant color.

Early mascara was made from coal dust mixed with Vaseline petroleum jelly. The creator, a chemist named T. L. Williams, created this new mascara for his sister in 1913. Having been success with Mabel his sister, Williams began to sell his new product by mail. Maybelline, a combination of his sister’s name and Vaseline, eventually became a leading cosmetics company that is still very popular to this day.

Following Williams reinvention of mascara, Max Factor also known as known as the father of modern cosmetics, begins to sell crack proof makeup to movie stars. Stars referred to it as “flexible greasepaint”. Factor claimed “a girl could look like a movie star if she wore Max Factor”. The eyebrow pencil took off in the 1920’s due to a new ingredient, hydrogenated cottonseed oil. This new ingredient helped the pencil to glide more easily. Greta Garbo exercised the eyebrow pencil skillfully, forever altering the face of America. 1930 tattooing permanent makeup made the scene and is still very popular to this day.

During the time of World War 2 around 1940, changes in makeup color and hue began to happen. Reds once very bright, start to tone down to deep dark red colors and undertones of brown. Hazel Bishop, a chemist who had worked in a dermatologist’s laboratory, developed a nondrying, nonirritating, long-wearing lipstick in 1950. The brand was accepted and sold out on its first day. After the 1950’s the makeup movement took off, with an explosion of new products that had been safer than products in the past, and the desire to please the unknown onlooker.

1990 Current

With the boom in makeup use many different products and manufactures have hit the market. Now with many types of makeup available on the market today, the consumer can find almost any product to meet their needs. There are mineral veils, mineral powders, hypo allergenic foundations, organic lipsticks, and makeup with “wrinkle eraser”, eyeliners that glide on with one stroke, and waterproof mascara that won’t run when walking in the rain in the spring time or taking an afternoon swim in the summer.

Eye shadow colors by the hundreds and just as many in lipstick. The multi-billion dollar industry shows no sign of slowing down, with increases in sales in 2011, during a time of near economic failure in the United States. Port Washington, NY, March 1, 2012 beauty market research conducted by The NPD Group, Inc. concluded that the total U.S. dollars spent on Makeup in 2011 were as much as $3.6 Billion, up 9% from 2010.

One thing that is distinguishable throughout the history of makeup whether it was 50,000 years ago or today, is the human desire to be admired by others, to look younger, to paint on masks or be remembered by a unique appearance. This desire is to be deeply rooted in societal history that has strong potential to progress in the future.

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The History of the Use of Makeup. (2023, Feb 19). Retrieved from

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