Ever thought about taking a shower without soap and shampoo? Or leaving home without a moisturizer, perfume, makeup or deodorant? Used since many years ago, there is no way to imagine our lives without these products. In this episode, we’ll show you a bit of the history of these items to get to know their origins.

The history of cosmetics begins with the men of prehistory who make engravings on rocks and caves and also paint the body and tattoo themselves. Tribal rituals practiced by Aborigines depended heavily on body decoration to provide special effects, such as war paint.

There is archaeological evidence of the use of cosmetics for personal hygiene and beauty since 4000 years before Christ. The word cosmetic derives from the Greek word kosmetikós and the Latin cosmetorium which means “able to adorn”. It also originates from Cosmus, a famous first-century Roman perfumer who manufactured the Cosmunum, an anti-wrinkle ointment widely used at the time, as well as having developed a number of other skin-care products.

Many cosmetics originated in Asia, but the earliest records deal with the Egyptians, who painted their eyes with salts of antimony to avoid direct contemplation of the “God Ra”, represented by the sun. To protect their skin from the high temperatures and dryness of the region’s desert climate, Egyptians resorted to animal and vegetable fat, beeswax, honey and milk in the preparation of skin creams.

 In addition, these people developed the first toilet products (vanity products, toiletries) on a large scale. Some ores were used as eye shadows and rouge as well as using plant extracts such as henna. The famous queen Cleopatra bathed in goat’s milk to have soft, supple skin, and incorporated the symbol of eternal beauty. Also at this time, the pharaohs were buried in sarcophagi which contained all that was necessary to remain beautiful.

Figure 1: Representation of Queen Cleopatra using beauty products

In the Bible, it is possible to find many accounts of the use of cosmetics by the Israelites and other peoples of the ancient Near East, such as: the painting of Jezebel’s eyelashes with a charcoal product; the beauty treatments and baths with balms that Esther took to soften her skin; and the washing with various perfumes and bath oils from the feet of Jesus, by Mary – sister of Lazarus.

Around the year 180 AD, in the Roman era, a Greek physician named Claudius Galen conducted his own research into the manipulation of cosmetic products, thus initiating the era of chemical-pharmaceutical products.

Figure 2: Clauduis Galen de Pergamon, considered the most capable physician in ancient Europe (ca. 130-200 AD)

The Greeks and Romans were the first people to produce soaps, which were prepared from plant extracts very common in the Mediterranean, such as olive oil and pine oil, and also from alkaline minerals obtained from the grinding of rocks. Actors of the Roman theater were great users of makeup to be able to incorporate different personages to its repertoire. In the 10th century, the hair was washed not with water, but with blends of herbs and clays that cleaned, killed lice and fought other infestations of the scalp.

In the Middle Ages, but precisely in the 13th century with the black plague epidemic, baths were forbidden, since the medicine of the time and religious radicalism preached that hot water, when opening the pores, allowed the plague to enter the body. For the next 400 years, Europeansavoided bathing and water was only used to quench thirst. Washing the body completely was considered sacrilege and bathing was associated with lewd practices. Hands, face and intimate parts were cleaned with pastes or perfumes, and hygienic practices were minimal, which greatly contributed to the increased use of makeup and perfumes.

The recognition of the benefit of personal hygiene grew throughout the 19th century. Housewives at that time made cosmetics in their own homes using lemonades, milk, rose water, cucumber cream etc. The influence of Romanticism and the contact of Europeans with the indigenous peoples of America, whose culture was deeply associated with bathing and hygiene, once again glorified the nature of bathing as a healthy act. In 1878, the first soap was launched by the company Procter & Gamble, produced by Harley Procter and his chemical cousin James Glander.

Figure 3: First soap produced

In the 20th century, the cosmetics industry has grown a lot. In 1910, Helena Rubinstein opened the world’s first beauty salon in London. In 1921, for the first time the lipstick is packed in a tube and sold in cartridge for the consumers. Among the innovations in the cosmetics industry are: deodorants in tubes, chemicals for hair curling, shampoos without soap, aerosol, low-toxic hair dyes and fluoride toothpaste.

In the 1950s, incentive policies brought to Brazil giant multinational companies, such as American Avon and French L’Oréal. These companies have launched such novelties as direct sales and products for the male audience. The basic makeup, which consisted of powdered rice and lipstick, was diversifying and becoming more sophisticated.

In the 1990s, the time between the application of the cosmetic and the appearance of the promised effect on the label decreases from 30 days to less than 24 hours. Multifunction cosmetics, such as sunscreen and anti-aging moisturizers, appear.

In this early 21st century, alpha-hydroxy acids, used in skin renewal creams, begin to be replaced by more effective enzymes. Another trend is the discovery of new raw materials containing various functions. At the present time, research is moving in the direction of genetic manipulation to improve aesthetics.

In the past, cosmetics were primarily intended to disguise physical defects, dirt and smell. With the change in the habits of cleaning and personal care, its use today is much more diffused and different than it happened. For this reason, the improvement of products used for beauty and hygiene and skin care, its processes and applications have become increasingly significant for society.

Therefore, knowing the improvements, practices, classification of cosmetics and their applications are of fundamental importance for the well-being of those who use them and this is what we will detail in the next episode.


A fascinante história dos cosméticos

Cinco curiosidades sobre o desenvolvimento de produtos cosméticos

Claudius Galen de Pergamon

Cosméticos à base de produtos naturais. Estudos de mercado SEBRAE/ESPM, 2008.

GALEMBECK, Fernando; CSORDAS, Yara. Cosméticos: A química da beleza. Sala de leitura, 2019.

História dos cosméticos da antiguidade ao século XXI 

Invenção do sabonete

To read the other texts of the Cosmetics Series, access the links below: