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Billion Dollar Beauty: How Cosmetics Became a Multi-Billion Dollar Industry

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Relying on beauty products to improve how we look and feel is no new concept. Our ancestors applied plant-derived paints and perfumes to increase their attractiveness to potential mates. Ancient Egyptians rimmed their eyes with kohl and painted their nails with lacquers made from berries.

But how did the beauty industry get from roots and berries to the multi-billion dollar industry it is today?

A Brief Look at the History of Cosmetics in the U.S.

In the 1800s, cosmetics were a pretty simple affair. Soaps and perfumes were popular, especially among the social elite. Face powders and rouge, to give the face a pale complexion and youthful glow, were also a mainstay for many women. The popularity of complexion-enhancing products increased throughout the 1800s, a trend largely driven by the idea that woman’s skin should appear fair and “untouched” by the elements, and by the growing popularity of photography. Most women mixed up simple complexion-enhancing recipes at home, while a few relied on compounding pharmacies (Jones, 2006).

For the most part, recipes called for kitchen ingredients like lemon and sour milk. A few required visiting a pharmacist, like alkanet root, used to make rouge. By the middle of the 19th century, the use of “cosmetics,” a term then describing any beauty preparation (Peiss, 1998), was on the rise and drug wholesalers, retailers, and even companies who made house paint began to manufacture cosmetics (Peiss, 1998). Despite their growing popularity, sales in the mid-1800s were still small compared to those of patent medicines (which were available without a prescription) and soaps, totaling only about $350,000 annually (about $10 million today).

By the early 1900s, most makeup was still seen as taboo. Face powders, blemish creams, and basic lotions were favored among reputable women, whereas rouge, eyeliner, and lipsticks were mainly used by prostitutes. Around this time, clever marketing campaigns pushing youthfulness and perfect complexions for women were on the rise, as was consumer and government pressure for the manufacture of safe products and clear labeling (Peiss, 1998).

In the 1920s, cosmetic use lept from the silver screen to the mainstream, spearheaded mostly by Max Factor Sr., who is credited with developing the cosmetics industry as we know it. Start-up cosmetics companies seemingly cropped up overnight. By 1930, variety was queen, and women could choose from over 3,000 face powders and hundreds of rouges (Peiss, 1998). The biggest difference between these products was packaging. In fact, packaging design became one of the most important innovations of the cosmetics industry. Portable cosmetics were camouflaged in stylish compacts that came in a variety of shapes and finishes, including brass or ceramic compacts that looked like cigarette cases, golf balls, and belt buckles (Peiss, 1998). Marketing campaigns tied women’s “sexual allure and desire” to cosmetics use and sales continued to rise (Peiss, 1998).

Although women were the focus of the beauty industry, they were not the sole target. For the post-WWII man, a clean, neat look was vogue. Products marketed to men included shave cream, skin creams, aftershave lotions, colognes, deodorant, powders, and lip pomades, all emphasizing masculinity.

In the 1950s, a rise in household income allowed women to indulge. At the same time, the target demographic for cosmetics widened to include younger women and teenage girls, roughly 11% of the U.S. population that now accounted for almost one-quarter of all cosmetics sales (Peiss, 1998). Cosmetics manufacturers partnered with toy companies to create beauty kits for younger audiences, growing the consumer base even more and also inciting the ire of a growing counter-culture that fought objectification of women and popularized a more natural look.

Money and the Mass Market

Fierce marketing tactics tied to women’s self-perception and body image allowed the cosmetics industry to evolve into what we know today. What started out as a $1 billion (adjusting for inflation) industry in the early 1900s has grown to a $64 billion industry in the U.S. today, or roughly one-quarter of the global revenue of the cosmetics industry (Statista, 2016).

To put these numbers into perspective, American women spend about $500 million on lipsticks alone each year (Peiss, 1998). The typical American woman owns seven lipsticks, and only uses about two or three of them. It’s estimated that the same woman will own about 12 eye shadows but only use five (McKnight, 1989).

Chemical Proliferation

But chemical innovation in the cosmetics industry has grown so quickly that regulations governing product safety have struggled to keep up. In the early days of cosmetics, a woman’s beauty regime included a handful of items: face powder, rouge, lotion. She made most of the products at home, from ingredients that she had in her kitchen cupboards. Like most industries, the cosmetics industry took off after World War II. Driven by heightened standards of idealized beauty and aided by innovations in chemistry, the variety of cosmetics increased, as did the complexity of formulations and the use of new chemicals (Peiss, 1998).

Today, the average woman in the United States uses twelve different beauty products every day, exposing herself to about 168 unique chemical ingredients. The average man uses six products daily and is exposed to about 85 unique chemical ingredients (Malcom, 2007). Chemicals like lead and formaldehyde, which are known to cause cancer and other adverse health effects, routinely appear in cosmetic products.

Even as questions of product safety and backlash over the objectification of women have continually embroiled the cosmetics industry over the years, the consumer base is as strong as ever. By 2020, the global beauty market is estimated to have a growth rate of about 6.4%, making it the fastest growing industry in the world (BusinessWire, 2015).

The Long View

As we clamor for the latest trends and products that will keep us looking and feeling more youthful, it’s hard not to wonder if we’ve gone too far, too fast. It seems that there should be better ways to achieve the desired effects of cosmetics that spare the expense of our health and our wallets. Perhaps, with the proliferation of products that cover, correct, and enhance, we lost something along the way. Having endless options to choose from, applying a favorite scent to attract attention or lipstick to feel sexy, are all benefits of living in a modern world.

It’s tempting to ask what would happen if we ditched all the excess and went back to the basics, fostering health from the inside out, rather from the outside in.


Business Wire. 2015. Research and Markets: Global Cosmetics Market 2015-2020. Available: Accessed: September 7, 2016.

Jones, G. 2006. Globalizing the Beauty Business before 1980. Available: Accessed: September 7, 2016.

Malkan, S. 2007. Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry. New Society Publishers.

McKnight, G. 1989. The Skin Game: The International Beauty Business Brutally Exposed.

Peiss, K. 1998. Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture. Metropolitan Books.

Statista. 2016. Revenue of the Cosmetic Industry in the United States. Available: Accessed September 7, 2016

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