Asia’s Age-Old Beauty Trends

Chinese beauty, Historical cosmetics

Across Asia, women throughout the ages have decorated their faces in pursuit of specific beauty ideals



India – 26th Century BCE  

Ancient Indian Beauty, Historical Cosmetics


Used as hair dye, henna is made from the leaves of the henna plant, which are dried, crushed into a fine powder, then made into a paste. When applied to hair or skin, it then binds to the keratin, staining it an orange or brown colour.


An Aryurvedic tradition, ubtan face masks comprise a herbal paste of turmeric, saffron, sandalwood, chickpeas and mustard seeds. Meant to detoxify the skin, it was thought to have been prescribed by Vedic physicians


Instead of baths, Indians used bathing cosmetics like turmeric germicidal cream, comprising chickpea flour or wheat husk mixed with milk to exfoliate the skin


Both men and women lined their eyes with kohl, a black powder made from burnt sandalwood paste combined with ghee or castor oil. It was thought to impart medicinal benefits to the wearer, like strengthening and protecting the eyes



Korea – 1st Century BCE 

Ancient Korean Beauty , Historical Cosmetics


Beauty lotions were juice extracts from plants such as gourd stems, while apricot and peach oils relieved liver spots and freckles and moisturised the skin. Honey was a popular face mask


Eyebrows were reshaped and painted using charcoal, gold powder, or inks made from plant ash and coloured  soot; indigo, black, blue and brown were common shades


Related: Ancient Remedies of the East and West 



Perfume was made from dried clove buds, believed to have a calming and rejuvenating effect. People bathed in water scented with clove and also used the spice as a deodorant


Poorer women used dried red peppers to colour their lips, while royalty used a combination of saffron flowers and cinnabar



China – 2nd Century BCE 

Chinese beauty, Historical cosmetics


Perfumes were made from flowers like lilies, lotuses and chrysanthemums. People also burned incense candles in their bedrooms to perfume their hair and clothes using aromatics like Persian rosewater and patchouli oil


Lipstick was made from beeswax and  occasionally scented with tea oils. Lip gloss was created from a combination of vermillion-coloured minerals and animal fat


Related: A Dyeing Art



The earliest nail polishes were made from gum, gelatin and egg. The colour of the polish denoted social class: Only royalty could wear gold, silver, black and red, while those from the lower classes were forbidden from using bright colours


After a princess was said to have woken up with the imprint of a fallen plum blossom on her forehead, it became fashionable for women to draw flowers on their faces and glue items like bird feathers, fish scales, dragonfly wings and precious stones to their foreheads, cheeks and eyes



Japan – 7th Century BCE

Japanese Makeup , Historical Cosmetics



In pursuit of a fair complexion, women brushed their faces with a white powder containing ground rice, zinc and lead. The application likely led to serious skin diseases


Bird droppings were famously used for facials: Uguisu no fun (nightingale faeces) was beloved for its ability to condition and soothe skin. Monks also used it to polish their bald scalps


Also a practice in Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands and South America, women stained their teeth black by drinking a cocktail of oxidised iron filings, soaked in spiced tea or alcohol to cover up the unpleasant taste


Safflower pigment was used as a rouge and lipstick, and became so popular that it was worth its weight in gold.



Iran – 19th Century BCE

Persian beauty , Historical makeup

Upper Lip

Facial hair was removed by applying a paste of bone ash, fat and jasmine oil to soften the skin before plucking out the offending hairs with tweezers. A second paste of egg whites, rosewater and lemon juice was lathered on to prevent pimples


A beauty spot, called kal, was painted on a corner of the mouth or cheek using a mixture of musk, oil, black wax, and ambergris (a substance produced in the intestines of sperm whales)


Related: Spiritual Skin 



The earliest hair gels consisted of sticky liquids,  such as the seeds of the quince fruit soaked in hot water, along with wet starch flicked onto the hair to give it a pearl-studded appearance


Black powder, called sormeh, was used as an eyeshadow and manufactured from the soot produced when burning goat fat, bone marrow, or nuts such as almonds and pistachios



For more stories and photographs from this issue, see Asian Geographic Issue 130, 2018



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