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What is the History of Makeup Wearing?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The history of makeup is quite ancient; women probably started wearing makeup around 4000 BCE in Ancient Egypt, and the use of various substances as cosmetics may be even older. Archaeological evidence clearly indicates that both women and men in Ancient Egypt wore makeup, using kohl sticks to blacken the eyes and copper to create rich green eyeshadow.

It is entirely possible that cosmetics have been a part of human existence for a very long time. If earlier societies used things like berries to stain their lips and cheeks, for example, this would not survive at archaeological sites, as the evidence would have long since decayed. The use of cosmetics was widespread enough by 4000 BCE for archaeological sites to include makeup containers, a few rare examples of cosmetics, and references to makeup in art and writing from this period.

Undoubtedly, makeup spread from Egypt to other regions of the world. In the Middle East, makeup was common enough to be mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible, and both the Greeks and Romans used it. In fact, some Greek societies believed that a woman without makeup might as well be nude. A wide variety of supplementary personal care was also performed, including removing unwanted hair from the body and elaborate hairstyles for both men and women.

Men and women both regularly used makeup historically. Both genders used a variety of substances to bring out their eyes, and many wore lipstick and rouge as well. Many societies have also used various materials to lighten their skin, ranging from rice powder to lead. Some early cosmetics were actually quite dangerous; lead and arsenic were routine ingredients when people started wearing makeup, for example, leading to illness and sometimes deaths.

Trends in makeup have also changed over the centuries, just as fashion trends in general have changed. In Elizabethan England, for example, people favored a more natural look, with less heavy rouge and lipstick, while in the Regency era, both men and women used rouge heavily. Cosmetics were also used on the hair; powdered white hair was extremely popular at one point in time, for example.

Substances like henna, kohl, ground gemstones, and various metals have all been used for centuries in preparations of makeup and unguents, and when people started wearing makeup, they undoubtedly used whatever materials were available, from milk to fruits. Along with makeup, many cultures developed creams to help remove makeup, along with lotions to soothe dry, cracked skin, especially in climates like Egypt. The history of makeup has been quite varied and colorful, and makeup today continues to be incredibly culturally diverse.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon956284 — On Jun 12, 2014

What kind of cosmetics did they use in ancient Egypt? Any help would be much appreciated.

By anon323914 — On Mar 07, 2013

These were very good facts. I'm doing a language arts project at school about whatever I wanted, so I chose this because it interested me. Thank you!

By ShadowGenius — On Jan 27, 2011

It is sad that women have been seen as mere artwork for so long now. They find it necessary to use makeup, and yet, when men use makeup, they are seen as effeminate. Shouldn't men try to look good for women too?

By Armas1313 — On Jan 26, 2011

In ancient Persia, the king's wives would go through a long beautifying process. In the book of Esther, the candidates for a new companion to King Ahasuerus were required to go through a year-long process of refinement using spices and fragrant ointments. This likely included using makeup and various effects from all over the world for increasing attractiveness in the eyes of her culture.

By BioNerd — On Jan 25, 2011

Many practices of the Elizabethan age believed that beauty was increased via pain, and that using techniques such as tight corsets a woman would be made more appealing. This is almost as bad as foot binding, which would be the extreme of aristocratic beauty perversions.

By anon96756 — On Jul 16, 2010

It's incredible how unsafe skin care and make-up regimes were in the Elizabethan era! I was doing some research about Elizabethan era beauty secrets and it's shocking to imaging dying one's hair with urine or using mercury on the skin!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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