The history of makeup

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Makeup has been used since pre-historic times and has evolved and delighted us for centuries. It’s a plaything that also helps raise our self esteem, a tool to create amazing effects on the stage and screen. The rituals and history of makeup reveal much about cultures, fashions and the lengths we will go to adorn ourselves. Controversy over ingredients is nothing new either. Just because ingredients are natural does not make them all safe. Natural but unsafe ingredients continue to appear in cosmetics, and in modern times have been joined a huge number of synthetic ingredients that are showing themselves to be irritating and toxic also.

The use of pigment for painting on cave walls, faces tools and ceramics is one of man’s earliest technologies. Ancient civilisations used makeup for rituals, fertility, sun protection, dance, preparation of the dead for burial and like today for adornment. Its application followed prescribed and sometimes intricate patterns or motifs depending on the ritual, and included others areas of the body apart from the face. Tribes would use patterns specific to their tribe, and many tribal cultures still continue their ancient techniques and motifs.

In Babylon’s ancient city of Ur lipsticks were used 5000 years ago! Plant derived henna was popular in ancient Persia to stain the skin and colour the hair, the fashion caught on in India and across Asia, and is still used today as a hair colourants and for detailed body art. The ancient Egyptians’ hieroglyphics clearly show their commonplace use of makeup, especially heavy around the eyes with Kohl to protect the delicate eye area from the strong sun as much as for adornment. Along with clothing and jewellery it gave an indication of their social class. They used pigments directly from the earth ground finely such as stibnite (black antimony sulfide), and copper minerals such as malachite, azurite and turquoise, and white cerussite. (lead carbonate) Along with some of the poisonous ingredients, were safe and healthy ingredients with the long lasting durability modern makeup seeks to provide. Insoluble minerals were found to be ideal for a long lasting makeup in hot climates where perspiration could spoil it.

Using all natural materials such as finely ground minerals, semi-precious stones, crushed insects and plants for their pigments the makeup industry was born! In powder or paste form such makeup has graced the faces and bodies on all continents, including the Arabs, Australian Aborigines, American Indians and African tribes.

Minerals such as iron oxide (haematite) were found to have stronger or longer lasting pigment compared with vegetable dyes.  Ancient and primitive cultures also knew the benefits of using elements from the earth as well as plants, from the soothing and protective minerals to the healing and antiseptic properties of leaves, flowers and herbs. While in hot climates, cosmetics made from insoluble minerals would not dissolve in perspiration.

Yet it was trial and perilous error that taught the ancients what to avoid as makeup ingredients. While Ancient Greek women used enjoyed the antioxidants in crushed berries, they risked rashes. And from the white powder they applied underneath to exaggerate their rouge, they absorbed lead, leading to debilitating reactions and even death. Heavy metals such as copper and lead also disfigured the skin.

Surprisingly, the inclusion of lead in makeup appears again and across the globe, as if the learning of the past had been forgotten. Good sense had prevailed for a time with women generally adopting more a more natural look without makeup during the middle ages. (Except for rouged prostitutes)   Being pale skinned however was a sign of wealth, as it meant you stayed indoors rather than being a worker outdoors, so many young women actually bled themselves to look paler, and wealthy fashionable men wore makeup to highlight their status. Wearing wigs meant the wealthy never had bad hair days, presumably a common occurrence without the benefit of modern showers and shampoo.

Queen Elizabeth the first of England was a big fan of applying cerussite or white lead on her face. Like a celebrity trend setter of today she sparked the fashion of Elizabethan women following suit while using mercury sulphide for their rouge. They mixed the lead with vinegar creating the paste ‘ceruse’. The lead caused their hair to drop out, and give rise to the next the fashion for abnormally high foreheads, as hairlines receded. Just look at paintings of this era to see this look!

In Japan the geisha applied heavy stylized makeup to exaggerate their features. An ‘undercoat’ of oily bintsuke-abura was applied first, then a white paste was made using lead and rice powder and thickly brushed onto to the face, neck and chest. Deep red lips and black eyebrows completed the look to complement the elaborate hairstyling and bright beautifully worked fabric of the kimonos.

In Italy during the Renaissance Signora Toffana became a famous makeup creator. But her custom line Aqua Toffana was especially for rich women and sold discretely as it was designed for a deadly purpose. Laced with arsenic, it was to be carefully applied to the cheeks only. Kissing their wife’s cheeks, the husbands ingested the poison and died. The rich widows grew in number arousing suspicion, and after some 600 deaths later, Toffana was executed. The rich widows had however been absorbing small amounts of the poison through their skin, compromising their own health.

In the 1700’s European women ate Arsenic Complexion Wafers. Small amounts of arsenic poisoned the blood so fewer red blood cells were available to colour the skin. Cheeks were then coloured with rouge made from cinnabar, a poisonous red shade of mercury. Applied also to lips, the mercury was directly ingested with drinking and eating!

The French Restoration in the 18th century saw red lips and cheeks being in fashion but generally in Europe makeup was largely viewed as something still quite vulgar, only for immoral women and actors. By the 19th century more ‘respectable’ shades of brown and pink appeared, seen as being less sinful, decadent or frivolous. But makeup was still generally shunned. by women; it was the accessory for good grooming for men of the upper classes. Makeup was coupled with the elaborate wigs to hide their infrequently washed hair and perfumes to mask body odour.

In the 19th century zinc oxide was widely by the French as a foundation powder (a safe and excellent choice, with zinc providing sunscreening and anti-aging properties) Although this replaced deadlier mixtures, toxic ingredients were still applied to lips and cheeks. During much of the Victorian era, (Queen Victoria’s reign WAS from June 1837 until she died on 22 January 1901) makeup was still considered to be associated with immoral women and actors who were also often regarded as having of questionable morals) When makeup began to regain some acceptance in the late 19th century, it was relatively subtle as the heavy handed application with bright cheeks and lips was still seen as immoral. The roaring twenties and women’s increasing independence and liberation changed all that!

Bold bright red lipstick became the standard from the 1920s, along with shorter hemlines and bobbed haircuts. But with mercury used commonly in the colourant to achieve the ‘perfect’ shade red, small amounts of toxic ingredients were being applied many times each day. As the skin of the lips is so thin, it readily absorbs what is applied, and of course much of that is directly consumed as one licks their lips, eats and drinks throughout the day. Stage and movie stars’ makeup over the decades steered the styling in cycles several times over– dramatic brows, highly pigmented lips, cat-eye eyeliner, false eyelashes, the nude lip, bright eyeshadow, smokey eyes, a natural look to an air-brushed look.

Today the packaging and marketing is as important to the manufacturer as what it is that they’re actually selling. But for all the time and money invested on these, trend forecasting, celebrity endorsing etc plus the legal requirements about what may and may not be said about the product, little has changed to improve safety standards for the actual ingredients being applied. Unfortunately there will always be someone who is allergic to something, but ingredients are still routinely used to ‘enhance’ a cosmetic and which have no bearing on its performance despite being known to be highly irritating. For example, perfume is included in eye products although it is not necessary, and should not be applied anywhere near the eye, even in tiny quantities.

Newly invented synthetic ingredients promise great results, such as longer lasting lippy or foundation, but without the opportunity to know what the long term risks may be, especially over several generations. Cosmetic companies all assure us their ingredients are not only safe, but officially approved for use. The trouble is that unless something causes a profound and instant reaction, it may not be banned or quantity controlled even though it should be. Consumers receive mixed messages about the safety of nanoparticles and synthetic ingredients, particularly those which are derived from petroleum, those which may mimic ingredients found naturally such as parabens but which are known hormone disrupters. The growing market of ‘natural’ cosmetics is heavily made up of products that still include a variety of synthetics so consumers need to read ingredient labels carefully to see what they’re really buying.

Truly natural makeup, whether all organic, 100% mineral or a blend of both has demonstrated it can compete perfectly with its synthetic counterparts in almost all respects. Shelf life is shorter when organic ingredients are added (minerals never go off) and of course without the addition of plastics one cannot have a waterproof mascara. These are small trade offs, and providing one uses their product with sufficient frequency it will be all used up before it goes off. Unsurprisingly with increased consumer awareness about what is actually being ingested through the skin, totally non-toxic makeup has become more mainstream.

The application tools are tweaked over time, fashion changes in colour and styling continues to be cyclic, but our love affair with makeup is stronger than ever. One can even have a career in applying makeup to others, something a Victorian lady would never believe! Egyptian-style eyeliner may have given way to Audrey Hepburn’s ‘doe eyed’ look, and tribal war paint may have evolved to fantasy images like butterflies painted on faces at high-fashion outings. For most of us makeup is far less styled and simply to highlight our best features while playing down those we wish to camouflage.

Going back full circle to only safe natural ingredients whether mineral or organic isn’t just becoming more fashionable, it’s smart. While bypassing irritating and skin blocking ingredients to create your favorite fashion looks, it’s more eco-friendly having bio-degradable ingredients that won’t damage flora, fauna and the food-chain. History has a way of repeating itself – thank goodness the makeup industry and consumers are becoming more ingredient savvy!

While there is assurance from the largest cosmetic comapnies that their various ingredients are safe, there is a growing awareness and preference for cosmetics that are without any synthetic ingredients, especially the variety derived from petroleum, SLS and parabens. Once a niche market, certified organic products and totally non-toxic makeup are becoming more mainstream as completely natural products demonstrate their ingredients to be as effective as those of the leading cosmetic companies.

Mineral makeup – this the most important part. Learning what is in your makeup will give you the ability to choose what will meet your needs best.

These are the ingredients you will most likely come across:

· Titanium Dioxide- A white natural sunscreen and anti-inflammatory agent. It is highly reflect, with only a diamond being higher, and thus minimizes fine lines and some skin discolorations.

· Zinc Oxide- A natural sunscreen providing broad spectrum UVA/UVB protection.

· Sericite- A colorless mica that can be used to cut the opacity of Titanium Dioxide and also works as an oil absorber.

· Cornstarch/ Rice Powder- Cosmetic grade- An oil humectant (draws oil out of the pores). Can make acne worse as it is a source of food for bacteria.

· Kaolin Clay- Natural oil-absorption.

· Mica- Natural “glitter”. Provides shimmer and sparkle.

· Iron Oxides- Natural pigment- very opaque. Used for tinting cosmetics.

These ingredients are also common, but can cause problems so are best to avoid:

· Talc/ Various Powders- Common fillers- can cause respiratory problems.

· FD&C Dyes- Derived from coal tar.

· Bismuth Oxychloride- Known skin irritant- causes itching, rashes and breakouts. Especially prevalent when the wearer sweats.

· Ferric Ferrocyanide- Controversial because of its suspected toxicity.

· Carmine- Crushed beetles.


Written by our favourite Juli ♡

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