The Science of Makeup

The Science of Makeup

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Women and makeup have a complicated relationship.

Some revel in it, running from CVS to Sephora to try on every last trend, delighting in transforming their look with the flick of a brush. Others keep it simple, sticking with the bare basics and often forgetting to put it on at all. And many abhor the stuff, either because they don’t like its feel on their skin, or don’t like what it stands for.

Love it or hate it, women have been using makeup, in different forms, for a very long time.

Fashionable sixth century women made their faces paler by bleeding themselves, either directly or with the help of leeches. During the Italian Renaissance, women coated their faces with toxic chemicals including arsenic, lead and mercury.

It was even popular to look sickly in the 19th century, when tuberculosis was considered a “romantic” disease. Women of that era emphasized the circles under their eyes and used rouge to look flushed with fever.

When did people first start using makeup? No one is 100 percent sure. The first archeological records of clear makeup use come from Ancient Egyptian and Sumerian tombs dating as far back as around 3500 BC. They used soot and other natural ingredients to paint their faces, and even had specialized tools to apply their makeup.However, paints and other means of self-decoration date back tens of thousands of years. Archaeological sites in South Africa provide evidence that body paint may have been used over 50,000 years ago, suggesting people painted their bodies before they even wore clothes. Even our closest relatives, the Neanderthals, may have worn makeup and jewelry.But the real question is, why? Not why do we wear it—anyone who has ever felt gorgeous after a swipe of rosy blush can tell you that makeup can help us feel, and thereby look, pretty—but rather, why does it work?

MORE: Blush Tips

In the animal kingdom, females advertise sexual availability and quality through physical signals. Whether it’s red rumps or elaborate behaviors, these wild women make it well known to potential mates that they’re interested in, ready for and capable of producing healthy babies. We humans lack these flagrant signals—it’s almost impossible to tell if a woman is fertile. Almost.

If you look at makeup use across cultures and eras, a pattern emerges. In theory, one could put color anywhere on the face. But all cultures have independently agreed on certain beauty principles: Makeup is used to even the complexion, darken the eyes, pinken the cheeks and redden the lips, no matter if you’re a doll-like Japanese Geisha, an Ancient Egyptian or a modern American woman primping for a Saturday night out. “The maintenance of youthful features and the exaggeration of female typical traits can be found in almost every culture,” says Dr. Bernhard Fink, a professor at the University of Göttingen who studies the evolutionary psychology of human mate preferences. Makeup works because it exaggerates (or completely fabricates) our natural signs of youth, fertility and sexual availability, thus making a woman seem more appealing. In other words, it works because it’s a darn good lie.

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