As with most things makeup, ancient Egyptians set the trend. To offset their kohl-lined eyes, both men and women would dab on a reddish-brown pigment called ground ochre. (They also patted the powder onto their lips, perhaps creating the first two-in-one cosmetic.) Ancient Greeks followed suit, using the juice of crushed mulberries. And that was just the start of face rouge’s colorful history. Read on to discover more.
1. GETTING THE PERFECT ROSY GLOW COULD BE DEADLY.
Wealthy Romans used lead compounds to lighten their skin, and then added a pigment called vermilion, made from a powder form of the mineral cinnabar. The look was costly: both materials were incredibly toxic.
2. THINGS DIDN'T GET MUCH SAFER DURING THE MIDDLE AGES.
To score the coveted pale complexion—seen as sign of wealth—European women would undergo a process called bloodletting to drain out their blood. To highlight their hard-earned pallor, the ladies would dab on a cheek tint made from a mix of strawberries and water.
3. QUEEN ELIZABETH I WAS BIG ON BLUSH …
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Unfortunately her coverage of choice had some downsides (to say the least). To achieve that coveted lightened complexion (yup, still in), women would apply something called ceruse, made from mixing lead paint and vinegar. Then they added a dab of rouge, derived from mercury sulfide. The combination of toxic products would eat away at skin, forcing the wearer to apply even more coats in order to cover up the damage she'd done.
4. … BUT QUEEN VICTORIA BLASTED IT AS UNSEEMLY.
In the 19th century, Britain’s monarch declared makeup as vulgar—only to be used by actors and prostitutes. Behind closed doors, however, young women would pinch their cheeks and dab on beet juice for a more subtle flushed appearance.
5. FOR ONE WOMAN, ROUGE WAS THE PERFECT RUSE.
In 17th century Italy, Palermo-born Giulia Tofana peddled a so-called complexion aid she dubbed Aqua Tofana. The mix of arsenic, lead, and belladonna (a deadly plant) was marketed to women trapped in unhappy marriages as a way of dispensing with their spouses. Disguised as either a powdered makeup, or hidden in a tiny vial, the flavorless poison could be mixed into any food or drink and left no trace in the bloodstream. Tofana later claimed to have helped poison roughly 600 men between the years of 1633 to 1651, though some of her clients said the deaths were accidental, insisting they really thought they were purchasing makeup.
6. NON-DEADLY INGREDIENTS (FINALLY) CAUGHT ON IN THE 19TH CENTURY.
The 1825 British guide The Art of Beauty criticized both harsh red shades—“With very few exceptions, ladies have absolutely renounced that glaring, fiery red, with which our antiquated dames formerly masked their face,” the tome stated—and the “dangerous reds” made from lead and cinnabar. Instead, the book advised readers to make use of what they called vegetable reds: “Red sandal wood, root of orchanet, cochineal, Brazil wood, and especially the baster saffron, which yields a very beautiful colour, when it is mixed with a sufficient quantity of talc.”
7. THE FRENCH HELPED PERFECT IT.
Alexandre Napoleon Bourjois whipped up the world’s first powder blush—an alternative to the greasy stage makeup used in the theater—in 1863. By 1879, his little round pot of blush became available to the public. It’s still one of the French brand’s bestselling items today.
8. COCO CHANEL MADE BRONZE FASHIONABLE.
After bronzing herself during a Mediterranean yacht trip, the fashion icon declared in 1929, “A girl simply has to be tanned.”
9. TODAY'S BLUSH FORMULAS STILL HAVE SOME INTERESTING INGREDIENTS.
Cochineal beetle extract, often referred to as carmine, is a bright red dye made from ground-up beetles. It can be found in both blush and lipstick.
10. IN SOME COUNTRIES, BLUSH ISN'T JUST FOR CHEEKS.
Beauty addicts in Japan apply rosy blush just under their eyes. The trend—which got its start in the Harajuku community—is said to make features looks rounder, softer, and younger.