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Date: 2012
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 1,332 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1170L

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Cosmetics Blocks of lanolin, a natural oil from sheep, being in the factory production of cosmetics. Blocks of lanolin, a natural oil from sheep, being in the factory production of cosmetics. Maximilian Stock Ltd./Photo Researchers, Inc.


Cosmetics are items used for cleansing and beautification without causing any physical or functional modification in the body. Creams, lotions, soaps, perfumes, lipsticks, and powders are examples of cosmetics. Key ingredients of all cosmetics include fragrances and preservatives to extend shelf life.

Biotechnology has contributed to the development of cosmetic products in a variety of ways. Scientific research has helped develop materials and techniques designed to maintain youthfulness for longer periods of time.

Scientific Foundations

Companies manufacture cosmetics for different skin types. Skin type is determined by an individual's cellular activity. People with oily skin, for instance, have overactive oil-producing cells. Cleansers for oily skin contain substances that act as oil solvents and are effective at cleaning the pores of the skin.

Moisturizers, designed to reduce skin dryness, typically use skin friendly substances, such as milk. The skin cells absorb the active ingredient of the product to produce the softening effects. Certain chemical peels used as anti-wrinkle agents effectively remove the upper dead cell layers of the skin, thereby leaving it smooth and erasing fine lines. Most cosmetics work in similar ways, either by being absorbed by skin cells or by removing dead skin cells.


Cosmetics are probably as old as the human race. For a long time, cosmetics were used for medicinal purposes as well as for enhancing the appearance. By 4000 bce, the Egyptians were using sheep fat to make a cream intended to paint eyebrows. They used a distillation process to extract various oils from plants. These oils were used to keep the skin soft.

The ancient Japanese used rice paste for painting their faces white. With time, the rich started using expensive cosmetics to acquire fair, glowing skin, and such skin became a symbol of affluence. Although cosmetics have been used in several forms ever since, the cosmetics manufacturing industry is thought to have started in France and Italy in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. By this time, fragrances made from plant extracts and other natural ingredients were also being made.

However, it was only in the twentieth century that mass production of cosmetics began in the United States, and cosmetics became a global industry. The growth of the cosmetics industry was driven by the movies, especially color films, and movie stars. As actors became celebrities, ordinary people started wearing make-up to imitate their idols. Face powders, hair sprays, fragrances, tanning lotions, and other products became easily available.

During World War I (1914–1918), women gained social and financial independence, and this allowed them to spend more money on a variety of things, including cosmetics. The opening of dime stores (similar to dollar stores today) in the 1920s further boosted the cosmetic market.

The 1960s brought the natural look back in fashion and initiated a trend toward the use of natural ingredients in cosmetics. As environmentalism gained momentum in the 1970s, people started questioning the use of animals in testing the effects of cosmetics. Some countries have banned the testing of cosmetics on animals, and some cosmetic manufacturers have stopped the practice voluntarily. In 2009, the European Union (EU) imposed a ban on most forms of animal testing for cosmetics purposes. Three specific types of testing were exempted from the EU ban. Each of the three types of allowed tests are related to potential toxicity of the cosmetics (or to one or more of their ingredients). These toxicity tests performed on animals are used to determine if a particular cosmetic, or cosmetic ingredient, could harm humans, or a pregnant woman's unborn child, after repeated usage.

Today's natural cosmetics are a legacy of earlier civilizations. Although they are marketed according to contemporary ideas of beauty, many of their ingredients are similar to those that were used in ancient times, as are the desired effects. The process of making certain cosmetics has been documented in historical manuscripts and recipes. The people who developed these recipes probably did not understand the science behind these products, but they saw the benefits of using such ingredients.

Current Issues

Biotechnology is opening new avenues of investigation in the cosmetics field. Leading cosmetics manufacturing companies are conducting innovative research. For example, scientists are investigating the use of nanosomes to increase the effect of pure vitamin E on the skin. Nanosomes are small spherical pouches that carry substances from one cell to another in the body.

Antioxidants, substances that protect cells from damaging effects of cellular reactions, are used extensively for anti-wrinkle treatment. Wrinkles are caused by damage to skin cells as a result of sun exposure and aging. Antioxidants help prevent some of this damage. Antioxidants have captured the public's attention and have been widely accepted by consumers. Green tea extracts, discovered to be rich in antioxidants, are now used extensively in a wide range of cosmetics from bath soaps to night creams.

The connective tissues of animals are also used in cosmetics. Bones, cartilage, and collagen are types of connective tissues. Scientists have taken the connective tissue of pigs and cows to make a liquid containing collagen, a protein that makes the skin elastic and protects it against wrinkles. The liquid is injected in targeted areas, such as lips, to instantly achieve a fuller appearance.

Although cosmetics are used widely, there are growing safety concerns. Many cosmetics, especially those that contain chemicals, are known to cause various side effects. Some cosmetics may also run a high risk of bacterial contamination. Consequently, countries have formulated laws governing the sale and monitoring of cosmetics. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has limited regulatory control of cosmetics sold in the United States. The FDA has no premarket approval authority and does not do premarket testing on cosmetics, but may take action if a cosmetic product is adulterated or misbranded in a way that adversely affects consumers. In the United States, cosmetics manufacturers must meet certain safety guidelines before their products can be sold to consumers, but the firms themselves are ultimately responsible for the ingredients in, and safety of, their products.

The European Union pledged to ban all animal cosmetics testing by the year 2013, including the three toxicity tests that were still allowed as of early 2012. This ban on all animal testing will apply not only to cosmetics made within the EU, but to imported cosmetics as well. By banning animal testing in such a large consumer market—as of early 2012, the EU was composed of 27 member nations—the practices of cosmetics companies throughout the world will be affected.

Biotechnology has contributed to the development of cosmetics that not only beautify but that also have a medicinal action. Known as “cosmeceuticals”, sunscreens, baldness treatments, and anti-dandruff shampoos are three examples. Although the term cosmeceutical is gaining popularity, the FDA does not recognize it and requires any product with the properties of a drug to be approved as a drug.

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Ancient Roman Cosmetic Unearthed

In 2004 archaeologists in London found a pot with a lid containing a Roman beauty cream. The pot has been dated to the middle of the second century ad. An analysis of the cream showed that it was made of refined animal fat (probably from a cow or sheep), starch, and tin oxide. Although the Romans had traditionally used lead acetate as the coloring agent in their face creams, this cream contained tin oxide, probably from the ancient Cornish tin industry in western England. Unlike lead, tin had the advantage of being non-toxic, and by this time the Romans had begun to realize the health risks of lead.

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Words to Know

A chemical compound that has the ability to prevent the oxidation of substances with which it is associated.
A type of protein that comprises connective tissue; collagen infiltrates the liver in cirrhosis.
Vitamin E
Vitamin E occurs naturally in human beings and is responsible for maintaining a youthful skin. Studies have shown that a reduction in vitamin E is related to appearance of wrinkles.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|YNCRDV250254118