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Short history of rouge

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The short history of rouge in the Mediterranean region and Far East Asia or ‘If it is red, purple, orange, lavender or pink, use it!’

Rouge may have been the earliest cosmetic invented by humans (red earths)
–Though this is the issue of ‘chicken versus egg’ as most of these cosmetics could have been also used as lip color
•Used in ancient Mesopotamia, in the Aegean, in the Middle East and Far East and Southeast Asia
•The application of rouge continued through the High Medieval period and Renaissance
•No proof that Egyptians used a rouge (the function of the Cypriot scented pink powder is ambiguous)
•Both toxic and non-toxic substances were used as rouge
•Many colorants were used as dyes in textile processing
•Colorants sourced from minerals, plants and animals.

Hematite and red ochre –the oldest mineral ingredients
•Hematite -mineral form ofiron (III) oxide (Fe2O3), one of several iron oxids(red earths)
–Earliest proof of use comes from ancient Sumer (city of Ur), ~3rd millennium BCE

https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=368294&partId=1&matcult=9036&sortBy=objectTitleSort&page=1


–Ingredient of choice till medieval Persia
•Red ochre – clay earth pigment which is a mixture of ferric oxide and varying amounts of clay and sand
–Used for both cheek and lip color
–The painted faces and ears in Minoan culture were done with red ochre paste (ointment).

Red ochre in animal fat base on Caterina Sforza’s foundation. A cheaper though not so bright alternative to vermilion.

Toxic mineral ingredients
• Vermilion – brilliant red and scarlet pigment originally made from the powdered mineral cinnabar
• Cinnabar – bright red mineral consisting of mercury sulfide, natural ore.
• Realgar – orange red arsenic sulfide mineral, known as masculine yellow, bull’s blood or sandarac.
• Naturally occurring form of lead tetroxide, also known as red lead (minium).
• Vermillion was most desired and the most expensive ingredients for rouge from Bronze Age to Renaissance and later
• Vermilion color was unmatched until mid 20th century when intense red pigment was obtained from petroleum production byproducts.

Vermilion based rouge sample for the Northern Wei cosmetic project (5th century CE) and minium based rouge sample (medieval China).

Colors extracted from plants
•Madder
•Alkanet
•Brazilwood (sappanwood)
•Red sandalwood
•Gromwell (Far East)
•Malabar spinach seeds (Far East)
•Carthamin from safflower (Far East)
•Black mulberry fruits
•Rose petals
•Orchil extract (purple dye extracted from lichens)
•Red poppy flower
•Dregs of wine

The dyes were used in liquid form after extraction (like alkanet) or precipitated as lakes (salts) with alum on base of flour, starch, clay, gypsum (like madder or sappanwood).

Alkanet rouge on Caterina Sforza’s foundation.
Red sandalwood on Caterina Sforza’s foundation.
Orchil on the Londinium foundation.
Red poppy flowers on the Londinium foundation.
The petals of red poppy (Papaver rhoeas) are used fresh or soaked in tiny amount of water before use. It is quite possible that red-colored petals from various flowers were used directly on unprepared skin (without any base) by less well-to-do women. Gathering petals would not have required a trained slave to prepare the cosmetic or money to buy ready products.

Colors extracted from animals (mostly insects)
•Kermes – best was collected in Armenia (late antiquity and early medieval period) and Poland (High Medieval period)
•Lac (India and Far East) –deep red colorant extracted from the crude shellac resin excreted by the lac insect, indigenous to southeast Asia
–gives nice pink color on starch base
•Cochineal from Dactylopiuscoccus
–late arrival, used mostly in 16th century and later
•Purpurissum – Tyrian purple (Ancient Greek: πορφύρα, porphúra; Latin: purpura), also known as Tyrian red) dyeing bath mixed with any kind of white earth (like chalk, gypsum, kaolin) and dried to powder
–Tyrian purple dye comes from secretion produced by several species of predatory sea snails in the family Muricidae, rock snails originally known by the name Murex.

Lac dye on millet flour (China 4-6th century CE).
Lac rouge applied on the modified 胡粉 (húfěn) foundation. This is my favorite rouge and I usually have quite a heavy hand when I apply it to my face (I layer it several times).

A note on presentation for the non-toxic rouge
1 – lead white base in lard base with starch (based on 6th century China recipe from Qimin Yaoshu (齊民要術) and analysis of excavated sample of 胡粉  (húfěn) from 2nd century CE) – reference sample

2 – safe lead white alternative (titanium dioxide, starch, ground pearls) in lard base (modified from 6th century China recipe from Qimin Yaoshu (齊民 術) and analysis of excavated sample of 胡粉 (húfěn) from 2nd century CE)

3 – Londinium ointment (2nd century CE) (tin oxide IV in beef suet base, starch)

4 – safe lead alternative (titanium dioxide) makeup based on Caterina Sforza recipe from late 15th century (in rose water base with starch and micronized mica).

Recreated historical foundations. No.1 is a reference sample and Nos. 2, 3, 4 are made with ingredients generally considered as safe for use in cosmetics.


The ideal skin was fair and smooth, not white/whitish, and this beauty canon seems to prevail across Europe and Asia for millennia, very often regardless of gender.
Egyptians were wiser and seemed to enjoy a golden skin tone, brushed with tiny amount of pink.

Selected references

Bimson, M. (1980). Cosmetic Pigments from the “Royal Cemetery” at Ur. Iraq, 42(1), 75. https://doi.org/10.2307/4200116

Diamandopoulos, A. A. (1996). Organic and inorganic cosmetics in the preclassical Eastern Mediterranean. International Journal of Dermatology, 35(10), 751–756. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-4362.1996.tb00659.

ioscorides Pedanius, of Anazarbos., Tess Anne. Osbaldeston, and Robert P. Wood. 2000. De Materia Medica : Being an Herbal with Many Other Medicinal Materials : Written in Greek in the First Century of the Common Era : A New Indexed Version in Modern English. Johannesburg: IBIDIS

Dusenbury, M. M. (2015). Color in ancient and medieval East Asia.

Early Chinese Cosmetics. (Alec Story). Retrieved June 15, 2020, from https://sundries.alecstory.org/2017/11/early-chinese-cosmetics.html

Farnsworth, M. (1951). Ancient pigments: Particularly second century B.C. pigments from Corinth. Journal of Chemical Education, 28(2), 72. https://doi.org/10.1021/ed028p72

Jia, S., & Shi, S. (1974). A preliminary survey of the book Ch’i Min Yao Shu : an agricultural encyclopaedia of the 6th century = Qimin yaoshu gailun (2nd ed.). Science Press.

Kelly Olson. (2009). Cosmetics in Roman Antiquity: Substance, Remedy, Poison. Classical World, 102(3), 291–310. https://doi.org/10.1353/clw.0.0098

Nosch, M.-L., & Laffineur, R. (2012). KOSMOS : jewellery, adornment and textiles in the Aegean Bronze Age. Peeters.

Partridge, J., & Holloway, J. (2010). The treasurie of commodious conceits,  & Hidden Secrets, and may be called, The huswiues closet, of healthfull prouision. 1573. http://eebo.chadwyck.com/about/about.htm#chron

Pasolini, P. D. (2011). Caterina Sforza. Documenti (Vol. 3). Nabu Press. https://www.amazon.com/Caterina-Sforza-Italian-Desiderio-Pasolini/dp/124824365X

Pérez-Arantegui, J., Cepriá, G., Ribechini, E., Degano, I., Colombini, M. P., Paz-Peralta, J., & Ortiz-Palomar, E. (2009). Colorants and oils in Roman make-ups-an eye witness account. In TrAC – Trends in Analytical Chemistry (Vol. 28, Issue 8, pp. 1019–1028). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trac.2009.05.006

Pliny, the Elder., and Harris Rackham. 1938. Natural History. Historia Naturalis : In Ten Volumes. 4, Libri XII – XVI (Loeb). The Loeb C. Cambridge Mass. [u.a.]: Harvard University Press. 

Pointer, S. (2005). The artifice of beauty : a history and practical guide to perfumes and cosmetics. Sutton.

Rapp, G. R. (2009). Archaeomineralogy (2nd ed.). Springer.

Ribechini, E., Modugno, F., Pérez-Arantegui, J., & Colombini, M. P. (2011). Discovering the composition of ancient cosmetics and remedies: Analytical techniques and materials. In Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry (Vol. 401, Issue 6, pp. 1727–1738). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00216-011-5112-2

Schafer, E. (1956). The Early History of Lead Pigments and Cosmetics in China. T’oung Pao, 44(1).

Stewart, S. (Susan M. (2007). Cosmetics & perfumes in the Roman world. Tempus.

Van Elslande, E., Guérineau, V., Thirioux, V., Richard, G., Richardin, P., Laprévote, O., Hussler, G., & Walter, P. (2008). Analysis of ancient Greco–Roman cosmetic materials using laser desorption ionization and electrospray ionization mass spectrometry. Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, 390(7), 1873–1879. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00216-008-1924-0

Wouters, J., Grzywacz, C. M., & Claro, A. (2010). Markers for Identification of Faded Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius L.) Colorants by HPLC-PDA-MS: ANCIENT FIBRES, PIGMENTS, PAINTS AND COSMETICS DERIVED FROM ANTIQUE RECIPES. Studies in Conservation, 55(3).

If you like to make your own accurate rouge like the ones presented here, please contact me for detailed recipes.
Please check before attempting any experimentation for potential allergens. Nobody should be harmed by the hobby!


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