Cosmetic development through the eons has a fascinating history. There is evidence of “cosmetics” in the Sumerian culture (Sumar – known as Mesopotamia then and now as Iraq and Kawait) as far back as 10,000 years ago. Sumerians founded the first civilization of towns and cities before 5,000 BC. They’re responsible for developing the wheel about 3,000 years ago, the plow, time clocks and writing, number system, a phonetical language, money, math, invented government, irrigation, astronomy and metallurgy, so it is not surprising that the cosmetic industry was born in this society as well. Henna, a flowering, fragrant plant of the area, was used for hair and nail staining in colors depending on the concentration that would vary between orange, red and brown. One hundred percent henna is safe, rarely causes reactions so traditional henna is exempt from regulation.
There is no safe “black” henna which has been cut with black stains from various sources and can be very harmful to health and can cause serious skin reactions such as blistering and second degree burns. Lip staining and colors were created from iodine and bromine harvested from algae in seaweed. Bromine and iodine are poisonous when taken internally. In modern society this combination was turned into an antiseptic used in hospitals known as Betadine, used to this day. Unfortunately, women would have died over time along with the men that kissed them. Other sources were looked for and people turned to plant dyes and beetles.
In Egypt, geographically close to Sumar, similar trials and errors were occurring. Certainly by 3,500 BC the Egyptians were the cosmetic kings of the world and have been recognized for the invention of sophisticated cosmetics. Decorative palettes still with stains have been found in tombs and diggings that were used for grinding rocks, color from minerals and plants. We have come a long way and yet we haven’t. They also were the society that developed a perfume industry that had far reaching markets. Cleanliness was considered god like and daily bathing and applications of scented compounds placed an ever growing demand on the chemists of the day.
A woman of these times except for dress would not look much different if you passed her on a street with her full complement of face artistry – colored eyebrows, eyelashes, eye shadow, lipstick, foundation as well as hair dye and nail lacquer. Woman wore cosmetics to please the Gods, sexual attraction was secondary. Men routinely wore makeup, in particular eye and lip colors.
To their demise, copper, lead and arsenic were the main ingredients in their products which as time went by, were discovered to be toxic creating mental and physical illness and death to many. Crushed copper malachite was traditionally ground to create a beautiful green powder that was mixed with water or sticky tree gum +/- lead for spreading and mixed with crushed precious stones for the upper class. Below the lower lid, black and dark gray shadow was applied often with crushed gemstones and pearls on eyelashes as well. Sparkly was definitely in!
All society level wore some cosmetics, particularly around the eyes. Eyeliner (kohl) was worn by all, including children. It had been discovered it controlled eye infections (conjunctivitis or pink-eye) which was a very common problem living in a windy desert. Kohl also helped with glare from the desert sun, does this sound familiar? This concept is still in use in many of our sports to prevent glare.
Kohl became popular over 5,500 years ago. The formula essentially remained unchanged. It was a blend of ground lead, sulphur, powdered herbs, ash and franchincense – an essential oil made from resin from the Boswellin tree of India, Africa and Middle East. Many suffered the consequences of chronic lead poisoning. Again, ground pearls and precious gems were crushed and added to this mixture for the upper class. Blush and lip coloring were made from red clays and insects crushed and mixed with animal fat and water. Lipsticks believed to have been created in Sumar had shimmer added from the pearlescent found in fish scales. The faces of ancient times were obviously a glow with sparkle, shimmer and color.
This sticky, glittering mess was cleaned off with varieties of scented vegetable and animal oil soaps. Body lotions were concocted from honey mixed with beeswax/goose grease or other animal fats and vegetables oils such as castor and olive, flax seed and sesame. As the toxic effects of the original iodine/bromine dying of lips became known, plants and bug dyes took over. Cleopatra in the 1st century BC was known to use red dyes crushed from beetles (cochineal insects) that produced carminic acid which is still used in lip products today. Cosmetics have delineated social status for thousands of years, either societies have shunned or promoted them.
So back to the story about Jane. Minerals have come back full circle with healthier ingredients. Glitter and shimmer have been back in vogue for some time from foundations to blushes to bronzers and mascara. Jane Iredale skin care has stepped up through the years and had provided healthy alternatives to the over the counter make up lines.
We have these ancient cultures to thank for the ground work and compounding that became the basis for the cosmetic industry evolving into what it is now thousands of years later.