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The History of Mascara
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It All Began in Ancient Egypt

Mascara is one of the most widely used beauty products on Earth. It’s so common that most of us don’t think much of it. But the history of mascara is surprisingly ancient – and fascinating! The story starts in ancient Egypt, where both male and female citizens used ivory and bone to apply eyelash embellishment. This ancient mascara was often made from rather unsavory ingredients, including the ash from burnt almonds, lead, kohl, and guanine. The stickiness was achieved by using honey or crocodile dung. The ancient Egyptians believed that the eyes were the sacred windows to their souls, so this early mascara was not only used for aesthetic adornment, but was also meant to spiritually protect their eyes.

Many Ancient Cultures Used It

Other ancient cultures also embraced eyelash adornment. The ancient Romans prized long, thick, and curled eyelashes, so women darkened their lashes with mascara. They used everything from kohl and burnt cork to charred rose petals, date pits, ashes, antimony, and soot to achieve this. In ancient Rome, mascara wasn’t just aesthetic – it was also used to prove chastity after Pliny the Elder wrote that excessive sex could cause one’s eyelashes to fall out. But the ancient Romans weren’t the only ones who prized enhanced eyelashes. The ancient Hindu text, the Kama Sutra, includes a recipe for eyelash thickener as a seductive agent. And around 900 CE, the Persian writer Ziryab opened a cosmetology school in what is now Spain where he instructed women on how to formulate mascaras and other cosmetics using soot and antimony.

Women Defied the Church to Wear It

Despite it being banned by the Church, some Renaissance women continued to use mascara and other cosmetics. Mascara at this time was most often made from crushed walnut shells and applied with the purpose of making eyelashes appear darker. The most famous makeup-wearer of the time was Simonetta Vespucci, who was painted by Botticelli. During the Elizabethan Era, women often dyed their hair and lashes red to match the Queen’s. However, dying one’s hair or eyelashes wasn’t generally accepted in society, so women usually did so in secret. To achieve their reddish hair, women often used toxic substances that sometimes caused hair loss and dyed their eyelashes using crushed berries and fireplace soot.

Rimmel Was the First Commercially Available Mascara in the UK

During the Victorian Era, makeup was once again in vogue. Women used everything from a blend of ashes and elderberries to lampblack (the sticky soot from oil lamps) to achieve darker, longer-looking lashes. This time period also saw the creation of the first commercially available mascara. In 1872, a French perfumer to the Queen named Eugène Rimmel invented a commercially available lash-plumping formula. It was primarily made of petroleum jelly and coal dust. (Rimmel is now a global cosmetics brand and still makes mascara today.) Unlike today’s packaging, Rimmel mascara originally came in cake form.

Maybelline Was the First Commercially Available Mascara in the US

In the early 1900s, another present-day cosmetics giant came into being on the American side of the pond. Thomas Lyle Williams observed his older sister Maybel dabbing homemade mascara on her eyelashes to make them appear more substantial (she had burned both her eyelashes and eyebrows in a kitchen accident). After a failed initial attempt, Thomas was able to improve on his sister’s homemade mascara formula. He secured a loan from his older brother to launch the product he’d made and it debuted as Lash Brow Line. He later changed the name to Maybelline (a combination of his sister’s name and Vaseline) and an iconic American brand was born.

One Formulation Caused Blindness and Death

The term mascara officially came into use in the 1930s and the product really began to take off once Hollywood starlets began using it. New formulations were introduced, but not all of them were good. Eye injuries due to a mascara product called Lash Lure actually caused the death of one woman and blinded over a dozen others in the early 1930s! (Along with the release of a fatal drug in 1937, these events helped secure the passing of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938.) The first waterproof mascara was introduced around 1940, but it also had problems; the turpentine in the formula caused itchy eyes and even some eye injuries.

Modern Formulations Continue to Improve

In 1958, Revlon introduced the first tube mascara with a spiral-tip wand. Two years later, Revlon rolled out the first colored formulations; hues like mauve and dark green became quite popular. The 1980s saw Max Factor’s release of a clear mascara aptly named No Color Mascara. The 2000s saw the release of even more mascara formulas for lengthening, volumizing, and thickening. Today, mascara continues to be one of the most popular cosmetics ever used. New formulas continue to be released, often with an emphasis on safer, more environmentally friendly ingredients.

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