The word cosmetics derives from the Greek “kósmos”, meaning “order”, and “kósmesis”, meaning “arranging, ordering”.

The history of cosmetics is parallel to that of humanity. Initially, they were associated with hunting and superstition, and later with medicine and chemistry. Nowadays, their end is to make a healthy individual even healthier.




The usage of colors and paintings dates back to the prehistorical civilization. As early as 30.000 years ago, the prehistorical men used them to decorate caves and their body, in order to camouflage themselves and frighten the enemy. The Indigenous peoples of America used to paint their bodies with bright colors during battle, whereas the early Eastern civilizations used cosmetics and aromatic oils in religious rituals.


It was the Egyptians who left the first traces of make-up in the strictest sense: they painted their eyes with malachite and lead glance, and their face with red ochre. During food and drink offerings, temples were perfumed with particular aromatic scents, which were also used to prepare the clothes during the embalming of the deceased.


In 1000-bc India the first medical code appeared. It was a guide for the Ayurvedic practice for the use of natural raw materials in medicine, in religious ceremonies and for an aesthetic purpose. The coloring of the soles of the feet, as well as of the nails and palms of the hands, was a widespread habit, as well as the use of intense scents, such as the sandalwood. The women also used to paint their face to represent the sun, the moon, the flowers and the stars.


Classical Greece established real aesthetic standards: for the Greeks, the ideal body was based on an idea of beauty that dominated for millennia. The strigil, a sort of metal crescent, was swiped on the body with oils and ointments to cleanse the skin from sweat and dust. Mastic oil was used to prevent and cover bad smells, including halitosis. The hair was dyed and rubbed with vegetable oils to strengthen it and protect it from the sun. Moreover, special razors, tweezers and a mixture of orpiment (arsenic sulphide) were used for hair removal. Women used white lead as their makeup base (lead carbonate), to give their skin the typical white color of the current beauty standards – complemented with a sort of lipstick with a base of red ochre and blackberry juice that was applied on the cheeks and lips to look healthy. Eyelashes and eyebrows were darkened with a powder derived from antimony; eyelids were painted with antimony powder, ochre, burned stone fruits, iron oxides and copper.


In Ancient Rome, the usage of cosmetics developed to the point of sometimes becoming quite extragavant – as were the current customs. The Romans loved make-up: they used coal to paint their eyes, fucus for their cheeks and lips, psilotum for hair removal, barley flour and butter as a treatment for pimples and pumice to whiten teeth. They used to dye their hair dark or blonde, they eased wrinkles with astringent mixtures, and they wore fake teeth, eyelashes and eyebrows. Scientific literature identifies this as the moment in which the connection between medicine and cosmetics becomes stronger.


With the unification of Syria, Persia, Egypt and India under Muhammads leadership, the habit of personal grooming and of maintaining a good general state of health through hygiene took hold. Cosmetics were used to treat diseases, and not only to cover aesthetic blemishes.

In the tenth century, an Arab physician distilled the essences of the flowers and was able to isolate the scent of rose to produce rose water, soon transforming it into an important product in the Arab market. Meanwhile, in the so-called dark years, monasteries appeared in Europe and the use of medicinal plants for therapeutic purposes became widespread. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, an important medical school was founded in Salerno – to which we owe the first recognized pharmacopoeia, which identified 150 plants and their use.


From the sixth to the thirteenth century, China was the major world power, and it’s there that Science and Technology advanced rapidly. With the development of transport and trade exchanges, cosmetic science developed too, along with various important universities in Europe. One of these was the University of Montpellier in France, where intellectuals flocked in large numbers leading to the creation of the most famous medical school in Europe. For the first time, treatments for sick skin and beauty cosmetics were regarded as distinct from one another.




In 1508, the increased demand of perfumes in Europe led to the creation of the first production of natural perfumes by the Dominican Monks in the monastery of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Due to the increasing wealth in Europe, international fairs were replaced by fixed markets that sold perfumes, spices and aromatic substances.


The Royal Courts in Europe became rich and influential, and hosted the exchange of extravagant trends: iron oxide and mercury sulfide were used to obtain red makeup, lead carbonate was used as face powder, whereas eye makeup was considered tacky and abandoned. The interest in perfumes grew in England and the English women started to use perfumed body lotions and flowers and herbs to scent their houses. In wealthy homes, a special room was dedicated to the preparation of cosmetics. It was in these years that the first “modern” substances to whiten the teeth and conceal or eliminate pimples made their appearance.





During this century, medicine started to deal with skin, teeth and nails problems – moving away from the concept of cosmetics as decoration. The greasepaint, a nude or light pink paint made with white lead, appeared. It was used in very thick layers on the skin to cover wrinkles on the face and neck. The lips were painted in vermilion, the eyebrows were darkened and the upper eyelids were decorated using a blue, brown or grey cream.


However, hygiene and prevention were all but advanced, and this triggered the plague outbreaks that affected the population until the end of that same century.





The porcelain skin tone was still popular, and the habit of painting one’s lips red remained fashionable until the French Revolution. Men used lipstick too, they darkened their eyebrows and they used perfume, while children wore pink makeup.

Bismuth subnitrate, a much whiter substance than the tin and lead oxides used up to that time, became popular. Beeswax and vegetable oils were used as hair ointments or hair wax.


Despite the widespread presence of pharmacies to purchase raw materials and vegetable oils, not all cosmetics were prepared at home; more and more street vendors started to sell perfumed beauty products of all kinds and with the most extravagant properties. It is to them that we owe the modern use of the word “charlatan”.

In 1710, the Italian Ferminis developed the formulation of a special water sold in his shop in Cologne. It was the Eau de Cologne that we still use today; initially sold as a medical cure against all evils and as an elixir of life, it later became popular only as perfume.

The early forms of advertising started to appear, first through hand-distributed flyers, and then on larger-scale newspapers.





The mechanical phase of the Industrial Revolution, the development of chemistry and the greater availability of raw materials led to the first industrial production of cosmetics. The pharmacies sold every type of cosmetic product or ingredient, beside drugs, favored by a general permissiveness, typical of the after-war periods.

While stiff corsets were being abandoned, cosmetics became so popular that some women even painted their nipples. In 1828, Guerlain invented, in France, the first lip salve. On the other hand, the Victorian Age brought about a newfound passion for natural and simple beauty. The focus switched to hair care: ointments and perfumed lotions, wigs and dyes became very popular.


The research on essential oils received a strong boost from the botanical classification of plants, and their use grew quickly, also because they were used in beverage factories. The most creative perfumers invented new scents, and numerous soaps were introduced in the market, both for cosmetic and hygienic use.





The first cosmetic industries started to appear.

The Gillette Company, founded in Boston in 1901, started to sell security razors and shaving soaps; in 1907, Helena Rubinstein moved to London from Australia and opened a beauty salon, creating a new line of cosmetics. Not much later, in 1910, Elizabeth Arden opened her business in America. In 1910, Roger and Gallet produced the first lip stick contained in a small cardboard cylinder. The same stick but complemented with a more expensive perfume and contained in a metal cylinder, was made available in the pharmacies a few years later.

The general industrial development and the discovery of new raw materials inspired the growth of modern cosmetics. The research and development approach were employed for every kind of product, from hair dyes to perfumes and deodorants. However, the real innovation of the beginning of the century were the tanning products and the sunscreens.


Sunlight was thought to have healing powers against anemia, and based on this concept, as well as on the theories of the school of Herodotus in Ancient Rome, the modesty of the Vicorian Age made room for sunbathing. Starting in 1930, sunbathing became the national pastime in England, where a tanned body was considered a sign of good health. Growing body exposure raised awareness about the topic of sun burns, so tanning products and sunscreens became the most produced and purchased cosmetics.


The greatest achievement of the century was the introduction of a regulation for cosmetics and personal care products in order for them to be safe for people. Since the 60s, it has been required that cosmetic products be technically well realized and do not contain substances that might be harmful to the health. Cosmetic products, unlike pharmaceutical products, needn’t have other properties but that of improving the aesthetical appearance of the user.


In the 80s and 90s, cosmetic products became a real aid for personal care.  They were no longer aesthetic cover-ups, but functional products to safeguard the skin health and to be able to achieve and maintain beauty.