A history of cosmetics ingredients and their evolution


BASF's Birte Kattelmann-Jagdt delves into the evolution of cosmetics

We are living in an age when cosmetics innovation is advancing faster than ever before. The dizzying array of new product concepts, formulations, textures and colours is contributing to consumers’ changing beauty rituals and creating a vibrant marketplace. It is easy to get carried away by the sheer volume of new products launching, but is our enthusiasm for cosmetics really that different from that of our ancestors?

Cosmetics have been used to make a highly personal and visual statement since Ancient Egyptian times. Scented oils and ointments were used to clean and soften the skin and mask body odour. Women used lead ore and copper minerals as make-up, which they applied to their faces for colour and definition. Kohl made from burnt almonds, oxidised copper, copper ores, lead, ash and ochre was used to define the eyes in the iconic almond shape seen in masks and sculptures. One of the best examples is Nefertiti, the wife of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten.

Ancient Greek women also liked to paint their faces with white lead and crushed mulberries as rouge. Just like today, it was fashionable to accentuate the brows, but instead of colouring them in, they would attach fake eyebrows made from oxen hair.

The Romans treated their spots and pimples with barley flour and butter, while they coloured their nails with blood. Mud baths were popular and some Roman men dyed their hair blonde.

In the Far East, the higher social classes in China adopted the practice of colouring their fingernails, using gum arabic, gelatine, egg and beeswax. Gold, silver, black and red were used to denote social status.

All’s fair

The fashion for a pale complexion can be dated back to Elizabethan England, when society women would use egg white on their faces. Italy and France emerged as centres of cosmetics manufacture, producing face powder made from lead and, sometimes, arsenic. Queen Elizabeth I was a keen user of white lead, which she used in the belief it made her look younger. By 1800, zinc oxide replaced these deadly mixtures, which were believed to cause facial tremors, muscle paralysis and even death.

Even today, in many regions of the world, a radiant and fair complexion is associated with beauty and youth. In Asia, Africa and Latin America, especially, women are seeking to brighten their skin. BASF’s Dermawhite WF caters to this desire for a brighter complexion. With a skin brightening effect three times higher than that of kojic acid, a commonly used and well-known active ingredient on the topical skin brightening market, it helps lighten the complexion after two weeks of use.

Look to lips

People used to colour their lips with pigment dyes, crushed semi-precious jewels, beeswax, butter, olive oil and even crushed insects. But unfortunately, the formulas would last for just a few hours before turning rancid. 

The first commercially manufactured lipstick appeared in 1884, sold by Parisian perfumers in paper tubes, wrapped in silk paper or small pots. Lipstick as we know it was invented by James Bruce Jr of Nashville, Tennessee, who patented the first swivel-up tube in 1923. Rouge Baiser, the first ‘kiss-proof’ lipstick, was created by French chemist Paul Baudecroux in 1927. This was followed by Max Factor’s invention of lip gloss for Hollywood actresses in the 1930s.

Since then, there have been many lipstick innovations, and today’s lipsticks come in a myriad of colours, textures and finishes, including the addition of ingredients like BASF’s multifunctional polymer

Cosmedia DC to leave lips feeling soft and silky-smooth. Helping cosmetics companies set new colour trends, BASF’s Reflecks MultiDimensions and MultiReflections ranges use the latest pigments technology to create a dramatic sparkle effect and visual dimensionality, and make eye-catching colour travel effects possible.

The evolution of sun care

Zinc oxide, a physical sun block, has reportedly been used for centuries to protect the skin from turning brown. However, only in the 1920s was sporting a suntan considered to be both fashionable and healthy, with Coco Chanel being the first celebrity to popularise the suntanned look. This trend prompted the development of the first sun care products from famous brands, such as Ambre Solaire, Piz Buin and Coppertone. However, sunscreen was far from being seen a necessity back then.

Since the 1980s, affordable air travel to sunny holiday destinations has transformed people’s lifestyle and leisure habits and aspirations. Science has revealed more about the dangers of unprotected sunbathing, leading to advancement in sunscreen technology and the move towards more effective broadscreen UV filters. Today, effective UV filters are increasingly important. According to statistics from the Skin Cancer Foundation, one in every five US citizens will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. The highest incidence of skin cancer is occurring in Australia, where the annual rates of malignant melanoma are ten and more than 20 times the rates in Europe for women and men, respectively.

With BASF’s broad spectrum UV filters, such as the ones from the Tinosorb and Uvinul ranges, it is possible to achieve a performance close to uniform UVB/UVA protection: so-called ‘spectral homeostasis’. The most innovative sun care products provide a light and dry feeling after application. They feature the sensory associated with skin care products, such as body lotions, but still provide the highest UV protection.

Hair care & styling

Before the advent of shampoos and conditioners, frequent hair washing was frowned upon and considered to be bad for the condition of the hair. White castile soap or tar soap was recommended for hair washing once a month, or even once every two months. The first liquid shampoos were developed in 1927, but it wasn’t until 1970 that rinse-off conditioners were introduced. In the 1950s, hair fashions for men and women became more sculpted, leading to the development of setting sprays, hair oils and hair creams. Today’s hair styling products have proliferated into a wide range of formats and textures, designed to allow the most demanding of consumers to create their individual style.

However, it’s not only formats and textures that have multiplied. Manufacturers also have a much wider choice when it comes to choosing the resources for the ingredients they use in their formulations. For example, many essential ingredients are now available as natural-based options. One good example is Plantaquat NC – an environmentally compatible conditioner compound based on lecithin. It offers effective hair breakage protection, reduction of split-ends and an exceptional sensorial profile. Another BASF hair styling product is Luviset One, an innovative styling polymer that is both multifunctional and easy to use – applicable for different styling formats, such as gels, creams and waxes. The polymer provides outstanding styling benefits, high resistance to humidity and long lasting hold with a flexible non-brittle film, for a true all-in-one ingredient.

A polished performance

Before 1800, people used a variety of methods to keep teeth and gums clean, whiten teeth and freshen breath. The early versions of toothpaste were usually powders and contained soap, chalk, betel nut and even ground charcoal to combat bad breath. Mass production began in the 1850s, when Colgate introduced its Crème Dentifrice in jars, followed in the 1890s by toothpaste tubes.

The BASF portfolio today covers a broad range of ingredients for oral care applications, such as toothpaste and mouthwash. It comprises, for example, surfactants, solubilisers and emulsifiers,

as well as polymers or active ingredients. For European customers, BASF now presents a consolidated product portfolio along with up-to-date formulation concepts, such as the Pure Smile Luxurious Mint Tooth Gel formulation. It combines effective and gentle BASF cleansing ingredients with the elegance of silvery-sparkling effect pigments. Another formulation is the Fresh & Care Everyday Mouthwash for Healthy Gums, which combines mild and low foaming surfactants with the ingredients bisabolol, panthenol and vitamin E-derivatives from BASF.

The future of cosmetics

Throughout history, humans have always expressed a need to use products for hygiene, protection and adornment. Today’s cosmetics and toiletries may be significantly more sophisticated than those earlier versions, but still fulfill the same functions.

What is changing is the society in which we now live; by 2050, the global population will reach nine billion people, with over half of these living in cities. Cosmetic brands need to understand their specific needs by developing beauty products that keep them healthy, address urban issues – such as pollution – and lifestyle ones, including ways of switching off from highly pressured lives.

Birte Kattelmann-Jagdt, BASF

Featured Companies