Cosmetics, general term applied to all preparations used externally to condition and beautify the body, by cleaning, colouring, softening, or protecting the skin, hair, nails, lips, or eyes. Perfumery is usually excluded from the field of cosmetics, although perfumes are commonly manufactured in coordination with cosmetics.
The use of cosmetics is worldwide and dates from the remotest antiquity. Although it is generally believed that cosmetics as they are now known originated in East Asia, the study of non-industrial cultures indicates the use of cosmetics in every part of the world. The war paint of Native Americans, the tattooing, and scarification (making of superficial incisions of the skin) practised by many peoples (the Maori of New Zealand and numerous African cultures, for instance), and the use of woad (a plant dye used by ancient Britons to paint their bodies blue) are all forms of cosmetic used for psychological intimidation of the enemy as well as adornment.
The earliest known cosmetics come from the 1st Dynasty of Egypt (about 3100-2907 bc). Tombs of this era have yielded unguent jars, and from remains of later periods, it is evident that the unguents were scented. Such preparations, as well as perfumed oils, were extensively used by both men and women to keep the skin supple and unwrinkled in the dry heat of Egypt. Egyptian women also developed the art of decorating the eyes by applying dark green colour to the lower lid and by blackening the lashes and the upper lid with kohl, a preparation made from antimony or soot. It is likely that the Jews adopted the use of cosmetics from the Egyptians since references to face painting appear in the Old Testament.
By the middle of the 1st-century ad, cosmetics were widely used by the Romans, who employed kohl for darkening eyelashes and eyelids, chalk for whitening the complexion, rouge and depilatories (hair-removing preparations), and pumice for cleaning the teeth. In the Middle Ages, the Crusaders found cosmetics widely used in the Middle East, and it was they who spread the use of cosmetics throughout Europe.
The almost universal use of cosmetics in modern times has grown with the scientific study of the ingredients employed. This research was begun by the French in the 19th century and led to the development of more and better cosmetics at low cost.
A large variety of cosmetics is generally available today. Cold cream is an emulsion of various oils and waxes and water; it is employed to cleanse and soften the skin. Various purpose-made moisturizers and cleansers are also available. Face powder and dusting powder, based on talcum (powdered magnesium silicate) and zinc oxide, are used to dry and give the skin a satin-like texture. Lip colour, either applied directly as a lipstick or brushed on to the lips, is made of cocoa butter or lanolin and is manufactured in an endless variety of shades, as are rouges, mixtures of red pigments and starch or finely powdered clay. Bath salts and other bath preparations combine water-softening agents such as sodium carbonate or borax with perfume; bath oils are also a popular skin-softening and perfuming aid. Nail polishes are lacquers or plastics available in many colours. Hair lotions and sprays are used to condition the hair, keep it in place, or make it glossy. Shampoos are based on soap or synthetic detergents.
Hair-colouring dyes, tints, and rinses, available in many shades and colours, are widely used cosmetic products. Henna is a vegetable dye, used for centuries to impart a red tint to the hair. Weak solutions of hydrogen peroxide are often employed as hair bleaches. For colouring the eyebrows and eyelashes, mascara is generally used. This is a compound of gum and black, brown, green, or blue pigment. Sulphides of calcium and barium, which remove hair from the skin, are generally the active agents in cosmetic depilatories. Bronzes are creams that impart a colour to the skin similar to that of the suntan.
Cosmetics and perfumery are by no means confined to use by women, as might be assumed. Grooming aids frequently used by men include powders, colognes, and lotions, particularly alcohol-based aftershave lotions; hair tonics, often with an alcohol or quinine base; and deodorants.
Annual retail sales of men’s and women’s toiletries in the Western world today make cosmetics a large and highly profitable industry.