Men and women have used cosmetics to beautify themselves since Neolithic times. But now, as Virginia Smith outlines, the production and sale of body-care products is a high-tech global business
Local high streets have suddenly sprouted nail bars and tanning salons; local chemists sell "ancient Indian herbal foot spas" and local hairdressers sell "pro-age" salon cosmetics. According to all those new skin-care product advertisements, it has never been so good to be an older woman. Meanwhile, heavy press coverage lets us know that the male "metro-groomer" who uses moisturisers, deodorants, hair products and tooth-whiteners is here to stay; and Tim Campbell, winner of The Apprentice , has been spending his year at Amstrad setting up a beauty division - his next project will be a male grooming business. For the reformed British male, the days of Old Spice after-shave standing alone in the bathroom cabinet definitely seem to be over.
Apart from the fact that cosmetics are apparently an obvious choice for the budding entrepreneur, what are we to make of this current boom in personal body care? Does anyone even disapprove? No. These days we seem to have unhesitatingly accepted it for what it is - a very innocent human desire for some comfort and pleasure. All the prohibitions have fallen away, and what we have left is simply history.
What we are seeing today is mainly the amplification of a mass market that has been around for a very long time: the luxury "beauty" market. Think of Cleopatra; then make an even bigger leap and think of our animal grooming ancestry.
There is no better justification for bodily hedonism than nature.
Biological nature is what lies behind our irresistible urge towards social and sexual display; it ensures that we clean and care for our babies and children; it also ensures that we clean and care for our "selves", our own bodies, on a daily basis, to prevent small problems from becoming big ones.
The body does a good job of cleaning itself internally without much help from the conscious brain, but it does seem to need some conscious help when it comes to the outer surfaces. Zoologists make a distinction between auto-grooming (grooming oneself) and allo-grooming (grooming by or for others). Residual semi-automatic grooming actions that we all still practise include shaking, flicking or smoothing the hair, feeling and absent-mindedly scratching the skin, rubbing the eyes, picking the nose, or using our tooth-comb publicly to nibble and clean our nails, or our tongue to lick small wounds with our antibacterial saliva. Gradually the human species lost most of its hair and, instead of grooming fur, developed methods of body-marking or body-art.
The undying rule for all human body grooming (ancient or modern) is "if you've got it, flaunt it". It was the Late Neolithic product revolution throughout ancient Eurasia that invented most of the artificial cosmetic techniques and products of body-art we still use today - the paints, perfumes, powders, baths, oils, creams, brushes, tools and towels. Beauty itself had a social, economic and religious value that was highly prized.
In the courtly and urban societies that emerged around the world, the luxury grooming trades were expanding industries that soaked up a massive economic surplus. But when the Roman Empire fell, the old pagan philosophy of beauty disintegrated in Western Europe. From the outset, the fundamentalist Christian Fathers heavily condemned bodily cosmetics (including baths) on moral grounds - so much so that historians find that much basic information about classical cosmetics has been lost.
By contrast, in the rest of Asia, South America and throughout the southern Islamic empire there was no break with ancient cosmetic traditions or the cosmetic trades, which in many places exist virtually in their original forms - except in modern cities, where Western pharmacological companies have made significant market gains.
But even with the best efforts of the Western churches, human physical need and the love of adornment could not be entirely crushed in Europe - above a certain rank. The wealthy elites of every generation were always ostentatiously well groomed and well dressed. Whenever there was extra money to spend on self-care and self-beautification - such as there was during the later medieval period and during the nationalist 16th century, the mercantile 18th century, the industrial 19th century and, certainly, the high-tech 20th century - there was a corresponding cosmetic boom.
Every boom seems to have pushed the social boundaries further and further outwards. Thus the sort of cosmetic care that used to be confined to the top 10 or 20 per cent of society is effectively, in the 21st century, available to roughly 95 per cent.
There were of course many economic fits and starts over these centuries. A lot hinged on the availability of "cheap" water, and lowering the price of ingredients. High-art bodily hedonism was often followed by enforced periods of austerity and, historically speaking, cosmetic care in the time of war or penury is almost as interesting as cosmetic care in the time of peace and plenty. It allows us to see how adaptive people are when coping with the bare minimum of resources; and how quickly the high or courtly standards of grooming can revert back to basics.
The poor, of course, had little or no time to spend on beautification.
Because they were always working, they could not buy expensive products and had to make do with home-made. Most of the world's population remained rural peasant workers despite mass urbanisation during the past century.
Even in 1920s Britain, a village servant-girl could treasure her one bar of scented soap but would be thought very "fast" if she wore any lipstick on her day off.
Conservative attitudes changed dramatically after the Second World War, when austerity was replaced by a hedonistic boom in clothes and cosmetics, super-charged by American mass production and American mass marketing via film and television. In 1949, British cosmetic and toiletry sales totalled Pounds 120 million; 57 years later in 2006, they totalled £6.4 billion.
Women consumers still dominate the market with sales of skin-care and hair-care products, followed by fragrances and colour cosmetics. As in the 1950s and 1960s, this current boom has been carefully orchestrated by the pharmaceutical industry. From the early 1980s, the French firm L'Oreal in particular began a sustained programme of scientific research and investment, incorporating "antioxidant" vitamin supplements into a new range of face creams, body lotions and hair shampoos. Skin cancer rates also made their mark, with newly regulated sunscreens replacing the older perfumed body oils. Cosmetic dermatology and plastic surgery contributed to the development of the anti-wrinkle muscle paralytic, botulinum toxin, in Botox; and more recently has experimented with nano-technology, using the carbon-based fullerene C60 as an active ingredient in cosmetic face creams - "one hundred times more effective than vitamin E". Because these new skin-care products lie on the boundary between medicine and cosmetics, they have been called "cosmeceuticals".
In the modern beauty rhetoric of personal health and hygiene, "looking good is feeling good"; and cosmeceuticals make an explicit "crossover" sales connection between beauty, diet and other "wellness" products. Cosmetic vitamins seductively link cosmetics to the deeply rooted organic movement, and from there to things such as organic baby foods - and, no doubt, vitamin-enhanced baby moisturisers and organic nappies. But the public is apparently still sceptical of the efficacy of cosmeceuticals - products that claim to be health-altering, yet do not have to undergo the rigour, accountability and cost of medical trials. In scientific circles, there is concern over the exploitation of fullerene C60; has the industry here crossed over into medical pharmacology? Perhaps not surprisingly, organic and natural cosmetics currently show the biggest increase in all "mature"
markets. These are the old European and North American markets, now relentlessly targeted by age and by gender: infants, teenagers, baby boomers and the "elderly" (male and female).
The notorious boom in men's cosmetics was kick-started in France, where male skincare products showed an extraordinary 67 per cent rise between 2000 and 2005. Sales have slowed since then, but there is clear evidence of an untapped male market worldwide. The luxury crossover market enjoyed by the male "metrosexual groomer" is linked to high-fashion clothing and product design and specifically emphasises high social confidence, good presentation and "personal achievement" in the workplace. But there are limits. In industry surveys, the numbers of metrosexual groomers (15 per cent) were easily trounced by the super-confident alpha-male "retrosexual groomer" (the majority, 57 per cent) whose adequate but efficient grooming routine took a swift ten minutes (20 at most) without fragrances or expensive extras of any kind.
Nevertheless, for men and women good grooming is a fact of life in today's labour market. A significant recent development has been new ranges of cosmetics for ethnic skin types on all continents. It is the vast new wave of workers who have moved into the world's urban agglomerates who are truly forcing world demand, driven by the need to succeed in the global economy.
Having already reached a saturation point in the mature markets, L'Oreal, Procter & Gamble/Gillette and other competitors are steadily penetrating previously untouched semi-urban and rural populations in Central Europe, Asia Pacific, the Middle East, Australasia and Latin America. As with teenage cosmetics, they price them at the low end of the luxury sector in the hope and belief that some day they too will become "mature" consumers buying high-end "value-added" goods with a lot of attractive packaging.
Could we maintain such high standards so effortlessly without efficient water companies, luxury bathrooms, service providers and convenient products? Maybe not, but unless all urban civilisation fails, supplying such universal needs is indeed a win-win situation.
Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity by Virginia Smith is published by Oxford University Press on May 24, £16.99.