A Brief History of Lipstick

lipstick was popularized by actresses
Elizabeth Taylor helped make lipstick more popular.

Nowadays we take lipstick for granted. Its use is widespread in almost every modern society from Asia to America. But have you ever considered where it came from? Just how did lipstick use get started and how did it evolve into its present form? This subject is a little too specialized for most beauty school curriculums so read on to find out more:)

There is evidence pointing to lipstick use in Babylon and Mesopotamia 4,500 years ago. It seems that crushed precious stones were used. You can be sure this was a practice only among nobility or the very wealthy though even now lipstick sometimes has a sprinkling of gemstones. A few hundred years later Egyptians started using ingredients from a fungus that ended up poisoning lipstick users. The moral of the story is be careful what you put on your lips as you’ll no doubt ingest it.

In ancient India betel and other ingredients prescribed by Ayurvedic doctors were used both for lip colouring and for treating cracked lips.

The next interesting phase in the development of lipstick came in Egypt around 3,500 years ago when the crushed shells of carmine beetles was applied by nobility: including the legendary Cleopatra. It seems fish scales were sometimes added to give a shimmering effect! Emperor Nero had several servants who were to keep his wife’s lips reddened by reapplying lipstick several times per day.

From there we come to the first invention of lipstick that might have looked like our modern day tubes. An Arab inventor pressed perfumed combinations of oils and other substances into rolls that were then applied to the lips.

Makeup in general and lipstick use in particular has had its ups and downs. Naturally, with the advent of cosmetics like lipstick came the corresponding backlash from Medieval churches who saw such things as “Satanic” and only for the use of harlots. So, while lipstick was reserved for the higher classes in Egypt and Babylon in 2,500 BC, by the time we get to 1,400 AD it is only used by prostitutes. However, change came again in the 16th century when it was again in use by royalty like Queen Elizabeth in England. But once again lipstick and cosmetics in general fell into disfavour in the 1700s when British parliament decided marriages could be annulled if a woman wore makeup before her wedding day.

By the end of the 1800s lipstick use became a little easier when the first commercially produced products began to be churned out by Guerlain. Previously all lipstick was made at home. The product came in a refillable container with a push up mechanism (but not using the twist-action motion common today). Still, around that time and into the 1900s it was common for lipstick to be applied by brush more than by a stick-like tube.

Once the First World War passed lipstick use became much more widespread both in the UK and US. After the Second World War popular actresses made the use of different colours acceptable — though red is still the most popular colour — and refinements in lipstick chemistry were made such that there was less smearing. Lipstick use became so common that non-lipstick wearers were suspected of lesbianism.

In the present day we can see a huge range of colours and lipstick use is so common that many of us won’t leave home without it and refresh several times during the day. Let’s hope we don’t ever fall back into the Medieval state of mind that sees lipstick as an “incarnation of Satan”!