Cosmetics are generally defined as products applied externally to improve appearance. The purpose–enhancing beauty–defines cosmetic use, as opposed to painting the body for religious, ritual, or medicinal purposes. With the exception of "permanent cosmetics," a late twentieth-century innovation, cosmetics' temporary nature separates them from permanent body alterations such as TATTOOS, PIERCINGS, or scarification.

Virtually all cultures have used cosmetics. Nail lacquer (gum arabic, egg whites, gelatin, and beeswax) originated in China at least 3000 years B.CE. Ancient Egyptian women lined and shadowed their eyes with green (malachite) and black (kohl). Henna was used on fingernails in the Middle East. In Britain, Gilbertus Angelicus's Compendium Medicinae (1240) contains recipes for beauty aids; by the 1400s women were using ceruse, a mixture of vinegar and powdered lead, to whiten their faces and bosoms.

In Western culture makeup originated as theatrical paint. While late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century actresses like Lillie Langtrey, Sarah Bernhardt, and Theda Bara pioneered the use of cosmetics off-stage and -screen, most American women did not consider makeup an "everyday" ritual until the early twentieth century, when entrepreneurs such as Max Factor, Elizabeth Arden, and Helena Rubenstein introduced products that looked more natural and were easier to use. And for children–aside from the ritual of face-painting at county fairs, dressing up for HALLOWEEN, and the occasional opportunity to play "dress up" with mom's makeup kit–cosmetics were largely off-limits.

Because cosmetics are designed to enhance beauty and increase sexual appeal, cosmetic use has always been a RITE OF PASSAGE. In the 1920s FLAPPERS battled their parents not only for the right to smoke and dance in public but for the right to wear makeup. In the film Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Judy's (Natalie Wood) father forces her to wipe off her red lipstick, which he considers too "grown up." In the 1950s, however, cosmetic manufacturers saw gold in the burgeoning baby-boom youth market, and the race was on.

Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, cosmetic manufacturers targeted the seemingly endless teenage market. In the United States, Bonne Bell targeted TEENAGERS, while in Britain Mary Quant launched her own "Youthquake." Until the end of the twentieth century, however, children largely remained off limits. Tinkerbell, for example, launched the children's market in the 1950s, but it steadfastly refused to sell eyeshadow and rouge, which it considered improper for girls so young, and targeted its ADVERTISING to parents, rather than directly to children. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, in America and in Europe, cosmetics were designed for and marketed to "tweens" (girls between childhood and teen years) and then to children as young as three. Japan, which saw its first "toy" makeup introduced in 1993, was not far behind.

The practice of encouraging young children to learn to apply makeup is not without controversy. Some critics are concerned about product safety (cosmetic ingredients other than color were unregulated in the United States in the 2000s) while others question whether such products encourage children to grow up too fast, or undermine their SELF-ESTEEM. But at $10 billion a year in the United States alone by the beginning of the twenty-first century, the market for children's cosmetics wasn't going away anytime soon.

See also: Fashion; Girlhood; Youth Culture.


Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. 1998. The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls. New York: Vintage Press.

Fass, Paula. 1977. The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s. New York: Oxford University Press.

Palladino, Grace. 1996. Teenagers: An American History. New York: Basic Books.

Peiss, Kathy. 1999. Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture. New York: Owl Press.