How Lipstick Works

Lipstick History, from Seaweed to Rouge

Most histories of lipstick start with Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt, who reigned between 51 and 30 B.C. and is perhaps most famous for her relationships with Roman rulers Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Cleopatra used crushed ants and carmine in a base of beeswax to color her lips. However, women in ancient Mesopotamia as far back as 3,000 B.C. were tinting their lips with red clay, iron oxide (rust), henna, seaweed, iodine and bromine mannite (a compound consisting of a halogen element and an alcohol sugar). Some of these pigments, such as the bromine mannite, were highly toxic. Ancient Romans, especially the upper class, also used homemade lip color preparations.

Abu al-Quasim al-Zahrwai, a Muslim Andalusian known as the father of modern surgery, is credited with creating the first lipstick that was actually a stick, sometime around A.D. 900 [source: Muslim Heritage]. He created a wax base for the pigment, perfumed it and pressed it into a mold. Although lipstick remained generally popular among women during the Middle Ages, its popularity began to die out among the upper class until it was considered fit only for prostitutes and lower-class women.


Lipstick was once again considered acceptable in Europe during the Elizabethan era (the mid-1500s) because of Queen Elizabeth I, who wore very pale face powder set off with bright red lips. Her lipstick was made from beeswax and crushed, dried flowers such as roses or geraniums.

Lipstick went back out of fashion just a few hundred years later. In 1770, Parliament passed a law essentially stating that made-up women were witches who attempted to lure men into marriage, and they could be burned at the stake. The attitude that makeup of any kind was a form of deception was not uncommon. During Queen Victoria's reign, between 1837 and 1901, women who wanted to color their lips resorted to rubbing them against dyed crepe paper or ribbons. Some sneaked preparations purchased from France or elsewhere.

The tide began to turn again in the late 1890s. For the first time, the Sears Roebuck catalog offered rouge for lips and cheeks. During the rise of the film industry, lipstick was made and marketed to actresses, who needed dark colors for their mouths to stand out on black-and-white film. By 1915, the modern push-up tube was commonplace; prior to this, lip color came in a small pot. Modern cosmetic giants such as Elizabeth Arden and Estee Lauder began selling lipsticks in their salons.

The popularity of lipstick types and colors have fluctuated wildly over the years. Next, we'll look at modern lipstick trends.