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Definition: cosmetics from Stedman's Medical Dictionary

Composite term for a variety of camouflages applied to the skin, lips, hair, and nails for purposes of beautifying in accordance with cultural dictates.


Summary Article: cosmetics
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

preparations externally applied to change or enhance the beauty of skin, hair, nails, lips, and eyes. The use of body paint for ornamental and religious purposes has been common among primitive peoples from prehistoric times (see body-marking). Ointments, balms, powders, and hair dyes have also been used from ancient times. Many cosmetics originated in Asia, but their ingredients and use are first recorded in Egypt; ancient tombs have yielded cosmetic jars (called kohl pots) and applicators (called cosmetic spoons). The Egyptians used kohl to darken their eyes; a crude paint was used on the face, and fingers were often dyed with henna. Greek women used charcoal pencils and rouge sticks of alkanet and coated their faces with powder, which often contained dangerous lead compounds. Beauty aids reached a peak in imperial Rome—especially chalk for the face and a rouge called fucus—and ladies required the services of slaves adept in their use.

Many cosmetics survived the Middle Ages, and Crusaders brought back rare Eastern oils and perfumes. In the Renaissance, cosmetics, usually white-lead powder and vermilion, were used extravagantly. From the 17th cent. recipes and books on the toilette abounded. Professional cosmetologists began to appear, and luxurious prescriptions often included a bath in wine or milk. Reaching its height in 1760, the use of cosmetics virtually disappeared with the advent of the French Revolution.

The year 1900 saw a revival of their use, accompanied by the manufacture of beauty aids on a scientific basis in France. Since then the industry has grown to tremendous proportions with products manufactured for every conceivable use. In the United States, cosmetics intended for interstate commerce are controlled under the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. Spearheaded by companies founded by Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden, Estée Lauder, and other women and by their male counterparts, e.g., Charles Revson, the cosmetics business flourished throughout the later 20th cent. By the beginning of the 21st cent. the cosmetics industry was mostly run by large corporations and had become a multibillion dollar enterprise.

  • See Woodhead, L. , War Paint (2004).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

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