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Updated on January 1, 2010
Photo by Piotr Bizior
Photo by Piotr Bizior

Cosmetics are preparations used to beautify and cleanse the human body. Cosmetics have been used by men and women throughout the world for thousands of years.

The use of cosmetics differs from one culture to another and from century to century. At various times in history, cosmetics have been associated with magical or religious ceremonies, and their application has been considered an art. The attitude toward cosmetics often depends on the outlook of a particular society. For example, during the American colonial period the strict moral code of the Puritans condemned their use. As a result, cosmetics were not popular in the New England colonies, but in the less restrictive social environment of the Southern colonies the use of cosmetics was widespread.

Photo by Piotr Bizior
Photo by Piotr Bizior

History of Cosmetics

Although cosmetics probably originated in the Orient, the earliest and most abundant evidences of their existence are found in Egypt. The ancient Egyptians used cosmetics for religious ceremonies and for personal adornment.

Cosmetics were applied by the ancient Hebrews for religious and public ceremonies, such as the crowning of kings, and for personal adornment. Among other ancient peoples, such as the Babylonians, Persians, and Scythians, cosmetics were used by men and women for religious and personal purposes. In ancient Greece, women dyed their hair and used powder and rouge on their faces. The Romans and Carthaginians were highly advanced in the use of cosmetics, and their array of beauty aids included such presently used types as hair bleach, eye shadow, lip and cheek rouge, and face powder.

In the Middle Ages many Oriental cosmetics were brought to Europe by soldiers returning from the Crusades. During the Renaissance, cosmetics were used lavishly at most European courts and were especially popular in Spain, Italy, and France. In England, cosmetic boxes called sweet coffers became standard furniture in ladies' bedrooms. Women also took baths in milk to improve their complexions. Queen Mary of Scotland is said to have bathed in wine for this purpose.

By the 17th century, cosmetics were being used by members of the lower classes as well as the aristocracy. Poorer people often made their own preparations. They used beet juice as a coloring for their lips and cheeks, and they applied flour as a powder to the face and body.

The manufacture of cosmetics is now a flourishing industry. In most countries the manufacture of cosmetics is controlled by the government. In the United States the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, passed by Congress in 1938, gives the federal government the power to regulate the manufacturing and marketing of cosmetics. It also requires that no harmful ingredient be put in a cosmetic formula and that all cosmetics be labeled accurately.

Hair Cosmetics

Among cosmetics for the hair are shampoo, hair spray, wave set, tint, bleach, and dye. Shampoo is soap dissolved in water and oil, with perfume added. Wave set and hair spray contain a gum in water that, upon drying, becomes stiff and keeps hair in place. The color changes brought about by bleaches, tints, and dyes are the result either of a chemical reaction between the hair and the coloring agent or of the absorption of the coloring agent by the hair.

Hand Cosmetics

Hand cosmetics include nail polish, polish remover, cuticle remover, nail hardeners, and hand lotions and creams. Nail polish is composed of nitrocellulose, gum, resins, solvent, dye, and a plasticizer. The many creams and lotions that smooth and protect the hands are made of water, perfume, a water-repelling agent, and a lubricator such as lanolin.

Face Cosmetics

Cosmetics for the face, also called makeup, include lipstick, eyebrow pencil, mascara, eye shadow, rouge, face powder, and liquid, cream, or cake foundation. Various creams, lotions, and packs are also considered face cosmetics. Lipstick, one of the most popular cosmetics, is made by mixing oils and waxes with red coloring matter. Stick mascara is essentially the same, but contains black, brown, or blue pigment instead of red. Face powder, also in common use, contains various powders, mostly talc, plus perfume and coloring matter. Makeup can be removed from the face with cold cream, a cleanser made of oils, wax, borax, and perfume.

Bath Cosmetics

Bath cosmetics are designed to give the bather a feeling of luxuriousness. Aside from soap, which is not considered a cosmetic, the most popular products used in bathing are bath salts and bath oils. Bubble bath, which contains a chemical that reduces the surface tension of the water and produces foam, is also used. After bathing, some persons use a bath powder, consisting primarily of perfumed talc.

Mouth Cosmetics

Mouth cosmetics are generally cleansing preparations, the most important heing toothpaste. It is usually made of chalk, gum, water, alcohol, and glycerol, and it is often flavored with peppermint oils and saccharin. Other mouth cosmetics include mouthwashes and sprays.

Body Cosmetics

Body cosmetics serve several purposes. Deodorants are made to prevent the odor that results from the effects of bacteria on perspiration. When they are designed to prevent perspiration itself, they are also called antiperspirants. Deodorants are prepared in liquid, cream, paste, powder, and stick forms. Oils, such as suntan oil, have a protective function and are usually made of mineral oil. Baby oil has an antiseptic added. Other body cosmetics include various lotions, as for the hands or face, petroleum jellies, and hair removers.


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