3D render of a large assortment of lipsticks

Lipstick—Extraordinary Ordinary Things

Editor’s Note

The purpose of this blog, like all the other “extraordinary ordinary things” blogs before it, is to offer information and entertainment. It is in no way a polemic or learned discussion. For the sake of simplicity, in this blog, we use the traditional either/or definitions of male/female, man/women, while fully recognizing that other more inclusive definitions would be more accurate.


Lipstick is the most obvious and probably the most widely used cosmetic product in the world. It has been so for centuries, largely because it has been deemed to be the one that made the wearer seem the most comely according to the mores of the day.

Personally, I detest lipstick. However setting aside my personal predilection for the unadorned mouth, I must admit that lipstick has played a significant role in human society throughout the ages. Because of its importance in the past, the present, and almost certainly the future, I believe lipstick very much deserves to take a place of honor on the list of what I like to call “extraordinary ordinary things.”

Brief History of Lipstick

Products used to put color on lips seem to be almost as old as humankind itself, largely by women but also by men.

As early as 3500 BCE, upper-class Mesopotamians are believed to have applied crushed semi-precious jewels to color their lips. Ancient Egyptians made a red dye for their lips from a combination of fucus-algin, iodine, and bromine mannite. Fabled Egyptian Queen Cleopatra (69-30 BCE) was said to have used a mixture of crushed carmine beetles and ants to give her royal lips a flaming red luster.

Being thick liquids or pastes, these early lip colorings would not have merited the appellation “lipstick.” Many historians credit the Arab cosmetologist Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi (930-1013 CE) for inventing the first solid lipsticks, which he described as perfumed sticks rolled and pressed in special molds.

All of these preparations were essentially handmade, usually by underlings, not the aristocratic or wealthy wearers themselves. The first commercially manufactured lipsticks came into being only around 1884 when Parisian perfumers began selling solid lip colorings to their customers. By the late 1890s, in the United States the ubiquitous Sears Roebuck buy-by-mail catalog started selling both lip and cheek rouge (“rouge” being the French word for red).

Early manufactured lipsticks were not packaged in the familiar tubes so common today. Instead, these solid “lip sticks” were either wrapped in silk paper, inserted into paper tubes, or sold in small pots.

In 1915, American Maurice Levy invented the metal tube container for lipstick. Called the “Levy tube,” the device had a small lever on the side which raised and lowered the “lip stick” inside. In 1923, fellow American James Bruce Mason Jr. invented the swivel-up tube, which raised and lowered the “lip stick” by turning a wheel at the bottom. Fairly quickly, the distinction between the lip stick (called the “bullet”) and the tube in which it was packaged disappeared, such that the term lipstick came to mean both the product and the tube in which it is packaged. For technical reasons, professionals in the cosmetics industry may still make a distinction between the lip stick (bullet) and the tube in which the stick is encased.

During the Second World War, metal lipstick tubes were replaced by plastic and paper tubes, metal was needed for the war effort. Even in the new packaging, lipstick became scarce during the war because some of the essential ingredients of its manufacture, notable petroleum and castor oil, had become largely unavailable.

Socially, World War II allowed women to work in engineering and scientific research, not considered a woman’s place before then. In the late 1940s, a certain Hazel Bishop, drawing on her wartime experience as an organic chemist in New York and New Jersey, created the first long-lasting lipstick, marketed as No-Smear lipstick. Bishop’s lipstick business thrived, to the point that the name Hazel Bishop became a household word.

In 1995, the story of lipstick seemed to have come full circle when Lip-Ink International (El Segundo, California) was founded to manufacture and market a wax-free, long-lasting liquid lip coloring. Other companies were quick to put out their own versions of what are now generally referred to as “lip stain” or “liquid lip.”

Social History of Lipstick

In certain ways, the development of lipstick over the ages reflects important changes in the structures and attitudes in human society.

For example, if up to now you have consciously or subconsciously been thinking that all the preceding information about lipstick referred essentially or only to women, you would be wrong. Recall that stretching back to the Mesopotamians from around 3500 BCE right through to the19th century, men in many societies traditionally also used makeup, perhaps less copiously than women, but nevertheless they used it. In the Roman Empire, both men and women wore lip colorings as a display of wealth since only the upper classes could afford to have lip colorings individually made in the fashionable shades of the time.

Men continued to wear lip coloring for centuries— including George Washington (1732-1799) in the United States. However, in France the fashion came to an abrupt halt during the French Revolution (1789-1792) when men wearing lip coloring was seen as a sign of sympathy for the oppressive aristocracy.

A distinct upheaval in attitudes toward lip colorings and other cosmetics occurred in much of Europe and North America in the mid-1800s. At that time, the influential Queen Victoria of Great Britain (1819-1901) considered cosmetics to be vulgar, as did the powerful Church of England. During the Victorian era, making up one’s face was deemed to be “an abomination” and “the Devil’s work” by both the crown and the clergy.

Throughout the 1800s, as such religious values permeated cultures around the world, the mainstream definitions of masculinity considerably narrowed. By the early 1900s; making up one’s face was seen as a female-only pursuit. Makeup on men was considered an aberration, if not an abomination. Now in the early 2000s, the pendulum seems to be swinging back towards pre-Victoria values. Makeup on men is becoming increasingly socially acceptable.

At the beginning of the last century, solid lipstick came only in a limited number of shades. Dark red was one of the most popular, especially in the Flapper Era of the 1920s. “Flappers” were young women who had thrown off Victorian ideas of womanhood by raising their hemlines, bobbing their hair, wearing lipstick, and having fun. Red lipstick was often shaped around the lips to form a “Cupid’s bow,” the look being inspired by silent-film superstar Clara Bow.

In the early 1930s, Canadian-American Elizabeth Arden (1881-1966) began introducing a broad range of lipstick colors as alternatives to the ubiquitous shades of red. Elizabeth Arden’s real name was Florence Nightingale Graham. As Elizabeth Arden, she built a cosmetics empire both in North America and across Europe. Her success inspired other cosmetics companies to create broader varieties of lipstick shades.

Despite its expanding use, lipstick did not easily liberate itself from its previous Victorian stigma. In the 1930s, while teenage girls saw lipstick as a symbol of womanhood, their parents often saw it as an act of rebellion. A survey in 1937 showed that over 50% of teenage girls fought with their parents over their desire to wear lipstick.

Even in the 1940s, the idea of lipstick being the “Devil’s work” had far from disappeared. Books and magazines frequently warned teenage girls that wearing lipstick could jeopardize their chances of popularity and a career. The leitmotif of these articles was that girls who wore lipstick were purposely trying to be provocatively attractive to men—or that they were prostitutes. Nevertheless, a 1951 survey revealed that two-thirds of teenage girls were wearing lipstick.

In the 1950s, Hazel Bishop began marketing its non-smear lipstick as “kiss proof: (it) stays on you . . . not on him.” The 1950s also saw the introduction of pale, less flamboyant colors than the iconic red, such as lavender, peach, pink, and even white. Many parents who frowned on their teenage daughters wearing bright red lipstick were less disturbed by these new, softer shades. Thus, these new entries into the market met with significant success.

White or nearly white lipstick became popular in the 1960s, in large measure due to their use by popular singing groups such as the Ronettes (“Be My Baby”) and the Shirelles (“Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Mama Said,” “Soldier Boy”). Girls would apply white lipstick over pink lipstick or place under-eye concealer on their lips. Also in the 1960s, lipstick became virtually synonymous with femininity. A woman who did not wear lipstick was suspected of mental illness.

In the 1970s, a number of cosmetic companies introduced lipstick in more unusual colors such as iridescent light blue, frosted lime green, and silver sparkled navy blue.

In the mid-1980s, mainstream cosmetic companies began selling “mood lipstick” to adult women. Previously, mood lipstick had been marketed only as makeup for little girls. After application, mood lipstick changes colors in response to changes in the pH of the skin and thus supposedly reflected the wearer’s mood.

In the 1990s, lipstick colors became semi-matte (only slightly glossy), in part inspired by several TV shows notably “Friends.” In the late 1990s and into the 2010s, pearl shades became very popular. Rather than being matte or semi-matte, these lipsticks were extremely glossy.

In the first couple of years of the 2010s, bright, bold lip colors such as hot pink, neon, and orange came back into prominence. However such are the vagaries of fashion, in 2014 and early 2015 things reversed, and “nude lipsticks” shot up in popularity, following the precept that “less is more.” Nude lipstick refers to neutral shades or shades like skin tone,

Starting in 2015, liquid lipstick saw a boom in popularity. Liquid lipstick applies like a gloss but dries down,; it tends to have more staying power and is more pigmented than traditional lipsticks. However, it dries out more quickly and cracks more readily over time.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Lipstick

Although lipstick is generally considered to be only a fashion accessory, the lipstick industry has not been lax in trying to position it as having important benefits beyond enhancing beauty. It is touted as also having health benefits, both physical and mental. For example:

  • Hydration. While some older forms of lipstick used ingredients that could suck moisture out of the lips, some modern lipsticks are designed to preserve hydration, i.e. prevent loss of moisture in the lips. To this end, certain brands contain some form of moisturizing additives, such as vitamin E or aloe vera.
  • Sunscreen. Today’s almost fanatical concern about using sunscreen to protect the skin against harmful UV (ultraviolet) rays from the sun may seem to be a very modern phenomenon. It isn’t. In the early 1900s, cosmetic industry chemists and designers had already come to the conclusion that most people regularly left their sensitive lips exposed to harmful solar rays even if they were meticulous about protecting the rest of the face. Thus, the industry began adding sun protection ingredients to their products, not only to protect lips from the sun but also to protect against wind, drying, and other harmful phenomena.
  • Aging. Perhaps surprisingly, certain studies have shown that women who regularly use lipstick have better posture in the later years of their life. Why? A possible explanation is, by daily standing in front of a mirror to put on lipstick, women between 65-85 years old have significantly fewer problems with their posture and balance than those who don’t.
  • Mental health. It is almost universally recognized that for many women putting on lipstick acts as a pick-me-up. When suffering from a low mood, putting on lipstick provides a psychological boost. Most women put on lipstick when they are going out; however, some find that putting on lipstick has the same effect even when they stay home. “I just don’t feel dressed without it.” 

Wearing lipstick also has its downside. For example, certain lipsticks contain toxic preservatives and heavy metals such as lead and cadmium, which could affect the heart, kidney, brain, and nerves. Most lipsticks contain less lead than what the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration) considers to be harmful. Those that contain more than the FDA standard are essentially unbranded, locally produced products, not the branded products from well-known national and international manufacturers.

There are several other possible health issues with wearing lipstick due to trace elements, which we do not need to enumerate here. As a general rule, whatever lipstick is being used, health authorities recommend that it should not be applied more than twice a day.

The Lipstick Market

Lipstick is big business—and getting bigger.

The worldwide lipstick market size at the beginning of 2020 was valued at $13.1 billion. This is projected to rise to $18.9 billion by 2024.

While some men may occasionally use lipstick, according to market researchers, not surprisingly women are by far the biggest customers. The market researchers go further to say that the main drivers of the projected sales growth are: 1) the rising number of women in the workforce, 2) an inclination toward purchasing cosmetics on e-commerce beauty websites.

The global lipstick market breaks down into seven categories of sales channels: 1) cosmetics stores, 2) supermarkets/hypermarkets, 3) convenience stores, 4) department stores, 5) e-commerce sellers, 6) beauty salons, 7) grocery stores.

in 2018 department stores accounted for an estimated 25% of all sales; however, the online channel is expected to show the greatest growth over the next few years, largely due to increasing predilection by the growing number of working women toward online shopping.

By product type, the traditional tube applicator dominates the market, in 2018 accounting for 60.9% of the total sales. Women seem to prefer this type of lipstick because it is easy to apply and easy to carry around. However liquid forms of lipstick (e.g. matte finish, glitter) are projected to grow faster than solid lipsticks, rising at an annual rate of 7.9% from 2019–2025.

In 2018, shimmer lip colors accounted for the largest share (some 35%) of total lipstick revenues. Shimmer lipstick is characterized by a soft, subdued sparkle or sheen. Because of their high moisture content, shimmer lipsticks increase comfort for the wearer. They are also easier to remove compared to matte cream and long-wearing lipsticks. As a result, this product class has gained significant popularity, considered suitable for both daytime and nighttime looks.

Some economists talk about what they call the “lipstick effect.” This is the theory that when facing an economic crisis, consumers are less willing to buy “expensive” luxury goods, but they do not turn away from luxury goods altogether. Thus, instead of buying expensive fur coats, they will buy upmarket, expensive lipstick. Given the onset of the COVID pandemic in early 2020, one might have expected sales of lipstick, and especially premium brand lipstick, to have risen during the year. But this is not what happened. Overall sales of lipstick actually declined while sales of mascara and other eye cosmetics increased. Why? There may also be other factors; however, the consensus is that this is largely because lipstick can’t be seen through a covid mask.

How Lipstick Is Made

A more accurate title would be “How Are Lipsticks Made?” There are so many varieties of lipstick produced to achieve such a wide variety of effects (highly colored, matte, long-lasting, non-smear, “kiss-proof”, etc.) that ingredients and manufacturing processes are quite varied.

Broadly speaking, lipsticks contain four fundamental classes of ingredients, waxes, oils, antioxidants, emollients. Whatever its end shade and form (solid, liquid), lipstick is made according to the same essential production process.

  • First, the ingredients are ground and heated.
  • Heated waxes are added to the mix for texture.
  • Oils are added to meet specific formula requirements.
  • The hot liquid is poured into a metal mold and then chilled.
  • Once the chilled liquid has hardened, the mixture is flame-heated for about a half-second to create a shiny finish and to remove imperfections.

Lead and other trace metals may be found in many lipsticks. These occur naturally. Since they are not intentionally added, such trace metals generally are not listed as ingredients. However, this doesn’t mean that lipstick manufacturers, regulators, and consumer protection organizations are not concerned about them. They are. And for good reason.

Lead accumulates in the body. Even though lipstick may contain only trace amounts of lead, over time the amount of lead absorbed into the body could reach dangerous levels.

Lipstick formulations are constantly changing, providing the possibility of higher levels of lead and other harmful contaminants being introduced, or new contaminants not previously there to be introduced. If one or more potentially toxic ingredients were shown to be above safe levels in a new formulation, the adverse publicity could do serious (if not catastrophic) harm to the manufacturer.

As noted earlier, to counter these potential dangers, as a safety precaution health authorities advise that lipstick should never be applied more than twice a day.

Lipstick and Culture

Because it seems to be a sine qua non, it is hardly surprising that lipstick has influenced culture in a number of different ways. Here are a few of them.

Songs about lipstick

There are many songs that mention lipstick, either in the title and/or the lyrics. And most of them seem to approve of it. My favorite one, which I think almost everyone will recognize, is “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You).”

Despite its tacit approval of cigarette smoking, to my mind, this is probably the most memorable of all songs referencing lipstick due to its plaintive, silky melody and incomparably romantic lyrics. It should not be confused with another song, to my mind good but not of the same quality, actually called “Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette).”

These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You)
"A cigarette that bears a lipstick`s traces
An airline ticket to romantic places
And still my heart has wings
These foolish things remind me of you.

A tinkling piano in the next apartment
Those stumblin` words that told you what my heart meant
A fairground`s painted swings
These foolish things
Remind me of you . . . .."

Idiomatic expressions

Given its central (virtually indispensable) role in society, it is somewhat surprising that lipstick has generated few idiomatic expressions. In fact, I imagine about the only one most people really know is “put lipstick on a pig.” This is the modern version of idioms about pigs dating back centuries, such as “a pig in a poke,” “pearls before swine,” “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear,” “A hog in armor is still but a hog;” “A hog in a silk waistcoat is still a hog.” 

Basically, “put lipstick on a pig” means to dress something up to look better than it really is. The origin of the expression is unclear, but it has to be fairly recent. After all, the word “lipstick” itself was coined only in the 1880s.

One early approach to the idiom appeared in an article by Charles F. Lummis published in the Los Angeles Times in 1926. Lummis wrote, “Most of us know as much of history as a pig does of lipsticks.

Perhaps the first use of actually putting lipstick on a pig occurred in “Westwood,” a 1946 novel by Stella Gibbsons. Describing a visit to a beauty salon, she wrote about one of the characters having her hair “contemptuously washed by Miss Susan, who had a face like a very young pig that had managed to get hold of a lipstick.”

In 1985 The Washington Post reported on a San Francisco radio host describing part of the city’s redevelopment plan. He said, “That would be like putting lipstick on a pig.”

Curiously, the world’s most famous vain and beauty-conscious pig, Miss Piggy of The Muppet Show fame, never wore lipstick. Perhaps she rejected the stuff in the vainglorious belief that she was so naturally gorgeous that smearing her mouth with red wax would not be an improvement. She was probably right.

Quotations about lipstick

Let’s be honest about it. Lipstick is a question of love and sexuality; women wear lipstick to attract the attention of men. And men are indeed attracted by it, so it seems to be a win-win situation.

However, for many women sexuality is only one facet of a broader picture. And for some not even the most important facet. Wearing lipstick is also a significant source of pleasure and self-esteem, as some of the following quotations illustrate.

“Lipstick is iconic. It’s the one product that marks out an era, and a certain lip color can define a season. It makes me feel more ‘done’. I wear a beige lip in the day, but red when I’m going somewhere—it makes that transition from day to night.”—Kate Moss

“Lipstick is the most valuable weapon in a woman’s make-up kit. It has the power to transform the appearance and mood of the person wearing it, and at the same time arouses the admiration of everybody else.”—Monica Bellucci

“In medieval times, religious groups condemned makeup for challenging God and his workmanship. But I and any good femme knows, God invented lipstick.” –Megan Falley

“Lipstick is really magical. It holds more than a waxy color—it holds the promise of a brilliant smile, a brilliant day, both literally and figuratively.”Roberta Gately

“Joy is the best makeup. But a little lipstick is a close runner-up.”—Anne Lamott

“I live by a man’s code, designed to fit a man’s world, yet at the same time I never forget that a woman’s first job is to choose the right shade of lipstick.”—Carole Lombard

“I came out of the womb waving red lipstick.”—Rose McGowan

“We, the women of the Senate, with President Obama by our side, will keep fighting, our shoulders square, our lipstick on, because you deserve equal pay for your hard work.”—Barbara Mikulski

“I love those hockey moms. You know what they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is? Lipstick.”—Sarah Palin

“In our factory, we make lipstick. In our advertising, we sell hope.”—Peter Nivio Zarlenga

“If I walk outside without lipstick, I feel naked.”—Sofia Vergara

“When I told Monique (my beautician) I didn’t wear lipstick, she sounded scandalized, as if I’d confessed that I didn’t believe in washing my hair or changing my sheets.”—Edna Ziesk

“Lipstick can’t solve all problems, but it’s a pretty great start.”—Anonymous

“Give a woman the right lipstick and she can conquer the world.”—Anonymous

Lipstick and Computing

At first glance, it might appear that lipstick and computing would have little or nothing to do with each other. But this is far from the truth.

Browsing online for lipsticks today is a major channel of distribution and sales. It is almost as intense as browsing for a car. The potential customer must be persuaded that the look, feel, and durability of the product are all just right. Because if they aren’t, there are thousands of alternatives on offer at the click of a mouse. Some lipstick manufacturers, therefore, provide various online try-on techniques. For example, one manufacturer lets potential buyers simply upload a picture of themselves, then “apply” different lipstick shades to see how well they match with the potential user’s complexion.

In a broader context, there are certain interesting computer applications that bear the word lipstick in their names. Here are three of them.

  • Lipstick Camera

A lipstick camera (also called a bullet camera) is a very small still camera roughly the size and shape of a tube of lipstick.

The design of a lipstick camera tends to be very simple because of its small size. It may be able to store images on a small internal storage device, or it can broadcast a signal to a receiver. The image quality varies widely. Some producers make very high-quality cameras with great resolution, while others can record a great deal of footage but the footage may be grainy or otherwise imperfect.

Although often associated with criminality and espionage, there are numerous less shadowy uses for lipstick cameras.

For example, in films and TV shows, a lipstick camera may be mounted on a helmet or automobile for distinctive point of view shots. In law enforcement, they are used as security cameras. In sports, they are used to monitor various locations such as zones on the playing field as insurance against acts of cheating.

Many companies make weather-resistant lipstick cameras for use in outdoor applications, and rugged models that can withstand conditions like bumpy bicycle races or helmet-mounted hang-gliding. Both black and white and color models are available, along with lipstick cameras that can pick up sound or infrared signals.

  • LipStick Mouse

LipStick is an alternative computer mouse for people who can’t use a standard mouse. With the LipStick, all mouse or touch-screen functions are controlled by the mouth. Anybody who has problems with hand-controlled functions may benefit from the LipStick.

LipStick is not the only mouth-operated mouse for people who can’t use their hands. However, according to the manufacturers, what sets LipStick apart is its advanced technology. Unlike most other mouth-operated computer mice, LipStick is not a “joystick” but a “force stick.” This means that it has no moving parts and requires only small head movements to operate, so it can be used in virtually any position.

LipStick is based on sensor technology that allows accurate measurement of microscopic distortions of the virtually solid aluminum housing.

The screen cursor follows the movements of the mouth. The left- and right-mouse buttons are operated by lifting one of the lips. While other mouth-operated mice use sipping and puffing to control the mouse buttons, LipStick has capacitive sensors in the tip that monitor the position of the lips. It is therefore a good solution for people who are on a respirator and have difficulty with sipping and puffing. Moreover, since the tip of the device is completely closed, there is no problem with saliva build-up and cleaning.

  • Lipstick on a Pig

In general, the expression “put lipstick on a pig” suggests nothing good. However, in computing, it is quite the opposite.

The “pig” in question is the Apache Pig, a platform for analyzing large data sets. It consists of a high-level language for expressing data analysis programs, coupled with infrastructure for evaluating these programs.

Pig basically consists of an infrastructure layer a compiler that produces sequences of Map-Reduce programs for which large-scale parallel implementations already exist. Pig’s language layer consists of a textual language called Pig Latin, which is said to facilitate programming, opportunities for optimization, and extensibility.

In 2013, Netflix announce Lipstick, a Pig workflow visualization tool as an addition to its suite of Netflix Open Source Software. According to the company:

“At Netflix, Apache Pig is used heavily among developers when producing complex data transformations and workflows against our big data. Pig provides good facilities for code reuse in the form of Python and Java UDFs and Pig macros. It also exposes a simple grammar that allows users to easily express workflows on big data sets without getting ‘lost in the weeds’ worrying about complicated MapReduce logic.

“While Pig’s high level of abstraction is one of its most attractive features, scripts can quickly reach a level of complexity upon which the flow of execution, and it’s relation to the MapReduce jobs being executed, become difficult to conceptualize. This tends to prolong and complicate the effort required to develop, maintain, debug, and monitor the execution of scripts in our environment. In order to address these concerns, we have developed Lipstick, a tool that enables developers to visualize and monitor the execution of their data flows at a logical level.

“Lipstick was initially developed as a stand-alone tool that produced a graphical depiction of a Pig workflow. While useful, we quickly realized that combining the workflow with information about the job as it ran gave the developer insight that previously required a lot of sifting through logs (or a Pig expert) to piece together. Now, as an implementation of Pig Progress Notification Listener, Lipstick piggybacks on top of all Pig scripts executed in our environment notifying a Lipstick server of job executions and periodically reporting progress as the script executes.”

Thus, while putting lipstick on a pig may be an asset in the computing world, outside the computing world, it is generally not recommended. Unquestionably, the ineffable Miss Piggy made the right choice.