What You Don't Know About Mascara

The surprising history behind one of your favorite beauty products. 

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Photo by Tetra Images/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on MIMI

As a redhead, my eyelashes are so light in color, they may as well be transparent. That's why a stellar mascara has always been my absolute must-have in terms of beauty products (I'm a long time Dior 
Show devotee, but have been playing with some other brands like Benefit's Bad Gal lately). I can skip foundation if necessary, even lipstick, but the lashes are a must unless I want to look like a mole person. 

Thankfully, though, I live in modern times where my mascara is kept neatly in a tube, complete with it's own ingeniously designed brush. Let's just say the options for pretty lashes weren't always so great.

Way back in ancient Egypt, when people wanted to darken their lashes (and they did, because it was thought to ward off evil — still waiting for mine to do the same trick), they used kohl, mixed with a bunch of additives to keep it from running. One of those additives, and no, I can't even make this stuff up, was crocodile poo. First of all, I want to know whose job it was to collect the crocodile number twos for everyone's lashes. I mean, weird profession to list on your LinkedIn, right? Secondly: Poo on your eyes?! Isn't that the nightmare that pinkeye and probably way worse things came from? More than protecting against evil, I'm pretty sure this stuff brought the bad stuff — really bad stuff — along with it.

Mascara wasn't a big thing in the Western world until the Victorian era, when ladies started spending pretty much all day in front of the mirror primping. Let's just say #wokeuplikethis wasn't a thing back then. They still didn't have the modern wonders of our tubed mascara, so these women would cook up a combination of ash and berry juice and then apply the hot stuff to their lashes. Naturally, it dripped and was pretty messy. Not ideal by any stretch, but was it an improvement over reptilian excrement? Obviously.

In the early 1900s, Eugene Rimmel (yes, that Rimmel) used petroleum jelly to make a revolutionary new mascara. Basically, it was sort of like a bar of soap that you'd rub a little brush against and then rub onto your eyes. Not exactly something you could pack in your handbag or apply at a stoplight. Still, Rimmel became famous for his cosmetic innovations and still to this day, the word Rimmel means "mascara" in a bunch of languages. Nicely done, sir.

Finally, in the 1930s, American beauty icon Helena Rubenstein developed a cream mascara that came in a squeezable tube (so much less mess!). It was Rubinstein's mascara that was used in one of my favorite pieces of photography, Man Ray's Tears, and her work eventually led to the multitude of modern mascaras we know and depend on today.