We’ve been painting our faces for thousands of years

Thanks to archaeological evidence, we know that cosmetics and body care substances were employed by the ancient Egyptians around 4,000 BC. Both men and women applied eye makeup, which was created by mixing the blue-grey mineral Galena, a form of lead sulphide, with copper, burned almonds and soot. It was widely believed to ward off evil spirits and improve eyesight, so even the poor used it. Rouge and perfumed oils were also used to soften the skin and prevent both sun and wind burn. And from ancient Egyptian manuscripts we know that eye makeup was also believed to protect the eyes from ailments like conjunctivitis.

The ancient Greeks and Romans were keen experimenters with cosmetics. In their case, fairly dangerous substances such as mercury and white lead were freely used.

We know too by simply looking at the Old and New Testaments that fragrances like frankincense and myrtle were widely used in Biblical times.

In ancient Persia (now the Middle East), cosmetics were used even when certain Arab tribes converted to Islam. According to Islamic law, the wearing of cosmetics is permissible, so long as it isn’t worn in order to disguise the real look or mislead or cause sexual desire, and as long as it isn’t harmful to the wearer. A 24-volume medical encyclopedia written by one Al-Zahrawi has a whole chapter dedicated to cosmetics which he referred to as ‘Medicine of Beauty’. Here we find everything from perfumes, incense and perfumed stocks rolled and pressed into special moulds, which may well have been the precursors to lipsticks and solid deodorants.

In Japan, geisha wore lipstick made from crushed safflower petals, and this was used to also paint the eyebrows and edges of the eyes. Sticks of wax known as bintsuke formed a makeup base, and rice powders were applied to the face, along with, believe it or not, bird droppings.

For the origins of nail varnish, we only have to look at the Chinese who began to stain their fingernails with gum Arabic, gelatine, beeswax and egg from early as 3,000 BC. In this instance it served a very practical purpose in denoting social class. The Chou dynasty royals, for instance, wore gold and silver, and the lower classes were forbidden to wear bright colours.

During the Middle Ages, church leaders in the West took a dim view of cosmetics thinking them immoral and sinful to wear.

Across Europe, from the Renaissance period up until the 20th century, having a pale skin was far more desirable in polite society as it denoted social status – for only those able to enjoy leisure time indoors rather than working the fields, would possess such pale complexions. Consequently, European men and women spent much time attempting to lighten their skin by applying powers and in some cases white lead paint, which may well have contained arsenic. Queen Elizabeth I is well known for her so-called Mask of Youth, which was derived from white lead.

If we fast-forward in time, it wasn’t really until the turn of the 20th century that makeup began to evolve into something recognisable by today’s standards. And not surprisingly, it was America where it first flourished. It stemmed in large part from the worlds of ballet and theatre, and later, the movie industry in Hollywood. Along came Max Factor, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein and someone called Eugene Schueller and an unusual hair dye which later adopted the name L’Oreal. The rest, as they say, is history.