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A History Of Blush - Into The Gloss

Author: Hou
Mar. 07, 2024
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These days, it seems like blush gets sidelined as the shy, retiring sister of lip and eye makeup. It's like we fear facial redness so much, we've abandoned the centuries-old tradition of adding a little bit of flush to our cheeks. In truth, interest in complexion and cheek coloring has deep roots, a history both fascinating and fanatical. Here’s a look at some bygone methods used to produce either rosy flush or ghostly pallor in the days before commercial cosmetics (and those pesky health and safety regulations).

Ancient societies relied on naturally occurring vegetable and mineral dyes for blush. In Egypt, ground ochre was rubbed on cheeks and lips, accentuating ubiquitous kohl-lined eyes. There is evidence of early Greeks using the juice of crushed mulberries to lightly stain their cheeks, and applying Alkanet root as a simple kind of stick rouge. Aristocratic Romans incorporated skin-whitening lead compounds into their grooming rituals, and often topped it with red vermilion (a powdered form of the mineral cinnabar) for cheek color. Both, however, were very toxic.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, cosmetics were less favored. Pale skin was seen as a signifier of wealth; so while peasants and serfs got tan languishing in the fields, their overlords (and ladies) would shutter themselves away and undergo bloodletting procedures to achieve a perfectly ghoulish glow. This look might be highlighted by a dab or two of cheek tint made from strawberries and water.

In the 15th century, firebrand countess and eventual city-state ruler Caterina Sforza took time from her busy lording schedule to write a book of DIY beauty secrets called Experimenti. Her recipes included one “to make the hands and face white' (apply the water strained from boiled nettles to neck and face), and a rouge solution made from mixing red sandalwood with aqua vita (ethanol) that would last for eight days once on the cheeks. Less altruistic (or perhaps more, depending on your point of view) was her countrywoman Giulia Tofana, who in mid-17th century Palermo peddled a “complexion aid,” called Aqua Tofana, specifically to women in miserable arranged marriages. The product was actually a poison in disguise—and some estimates suggest that over 600 men died from unwittingly ingesting it. Tofana was eventually discovered and executed for her guerilla-style contributions to early women’s liberation.

Elizabeth I of England, for her part, did a great deal to further the popularity of face paint during her reign. Unfortunately, methods and materials of the time were unsavory at best, deadly at worst (sensing a pattern yet?). Liberally applied ceruse (a concoction of lead paint and vinegar) created a mask on the wearer that was seldom washed off. Egg whites would be used to finish each successive surface, while the skin buried beneath would turn grey from oxygen deprivation. The spread of diseases such as smallpox in 17th and 18th century Europe also stoked reliance on such practices; unsightly scars and blemishes were covered over by this distinctive spackle. A similar aesthetic was upheld in the 18th century courts of France, by both men and women, until the French Revolution and its decisive guillotine gave the final word on upper-class heads and their chosen fashions.

Taking note, Georgian blue bloods championed a more understated, romantic appearance. They abandoned the über-pale, stylized look in favor of the bright cheeks of a milkmaid—all rosy glow and good health. This revived interests in natural flushes, whether achieved by taking a turn about the room or subtly applying organic color to the face. The 1825 British guide, The Art of Beauty(subtitle: The Best Methods of Improving and Preserving The Shape, Carriage, and Complexion), recommended that rouge be “rendered extremely innocently,” and provided a glossary of preferred ingredients that included safflower, red sandalwood, Brazil wood, and carmine. Carmine had been introduced to Europe after Spanish conquest of the Americas. The dye, harvested from an insect called the cochineal, was a deep red that could be safely used on the skin, and continues to be an ingredient in many products today. The Art of Beauty also lists a number of intriguingly named rouges available for purchase at the time, suggesting an already globalized market: Portuguese dishes, Spanish wool and Spanish papers, and the Chinese box of colors.

A strange trend running counter to the pastoral romantic style in the 19th century was that of the faux TB victim. Cheeks were still made flush, but done so more to resemble the glow brought on by a terminal fever, while skin was kept pale and powdered, and pupils were sometimes dilated with dangerous belladonna.

Declaring cosmetics indecent by public decree in the 19th century, Queen Victoria ushered in a new era of public disapproval and clandestine application as heavy makeup was seen as the domain of prostitutes and actors. But in private, of course, young women bit their lips, pinched their cheeks, and patted beet juice stains sparingly onto their faces before meeting suitors. There was no need to despair the new austerity for long though, because by the start of the 20th century French companies across the channel, such as Bourjois and Guerlain, were already laying the foundation for a wholesale beauty market that neither trends nor tyrants have been able to put a stop to since.

—Lauren Maas

Photographed by Ben Jurgensen.

Humans have been painting their faces for many many years - practically since the dawn of time! From displaying tribal allegiances & adopting paint as camouflage, to theatrical usage and flaunting social status, face painting is a topic that we could talk about for days.

Today we are going to be looking specifically at blush - or rouge - as it has also been known!


Blushing is a reaction triggered by social interaction, with blush triggers including embarrassment or experiencing emotion - even just receiving an unexpected compliment can make you blush! Your blush is caused by the blood vessels in your face dilating. This causes an increase in the amount of blood flowing to the cheeks.

A flush of the cheeks is seen to be a sign of youth and freshness as well as a sign of sensuality and fertility. More on that later!


Rouge takes its name from the French for the colour red, which is arguably one of the most important colours when it comes to makeup! Early cosmetic ingredients that have been associated with scarlet hues include crushed berries and bugs (cochineal, carminc acids), ground red ochre, chalk, copper, manganese dioxide and even lead paint.

The Ancient Egyptians were probably one of the first groups in History to adopt the use of blush into their beauty regimes. We’ve used a picture of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra for illustrative purposes here, but back in the days of the pyramids, blush was used by both men and women. Fat would be mixed with ground ochre to add a pop of red to cheeks.

Greeks and Romans also used blush to define their social status - the Greeks used crushed mulberries whilst the Romans favoured red vermillion, a powder derivative of cinnabar. Want to know why Cinnabar wasn’t a wise option? It comes from the toxic ore of Mercury - not something you want to apply to your face or anywhere near your person, for that matter!

The middle ages saw blush fall out of favour, as workers who spent their days out in the sunshine tending to fields and ladies of the night were perceived to have red cheeks. The connotations of flushed cheeks were so unpopular that leeches were even used to remove blood from the face, whilst egg whites were used to lighten the skin… That is, until Elizabeth I brought it back into fashion. Elizabeth ruled from 1558 until her death in 1603. Whilst her beauty still focused on pale skin, it also featured the colour red - from her red hair, red lips to her dramatic blushed cheeks.


During the Rococo era, blush was used by both men and women to mimic natural flushes. Jeanne Antoinette Poisson - also known as Madame de Pompadour - had even popularised a particular shade of blush during the 18th century - Pompadour Pink.

The last Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, was renowned for her extravagant tastes. Before she met her early demise at the guillotine, she was known for her sky high hair, penchant for cakes and elaborate beauty regime. Marie Antoinette got her extreme blush look by contrasting her rouge against very pale white skin paste. It’s important to bear in mind when looking back at portraits of the era that makeup had to be visible by candlelight, which explains why product application was so visible!

The first powder blush was created by French cosmetics brand Bourjois in 1863 as an alternative to theatrical greasepaint. The lightweight airy formulation was seen as a dramatic improvement and pots of Bourjois became le dernier cri amongst Parisian thespians and performers.


Ever wondered about the significance of the line above? Taken from Chicago’s All That Jazz, forget cheeks, one of the ultimate acts of saucy rebellion in the 1920’s was for Flappers to apply rouge to their knees to accentuate the fact that they were showing their legs!

With the introduction of cosmetics brands such as Revlon and Elizabeth Arden, the 1960s saw pastel tones come into vogue and the 90s rise of the Supermodel saw stripy washes of bright pink swish swish onto the catwalks.


Today, we prefer to stick to applying blush to the apples of our cheeks. Although you only have to look at NARS best selling blush Orgasm to work out that when it comes to blush, sensuality still sells!

Some of our favourite blushes come in gel, cream and even in a liquid tint formulation. From peach and coral to rose and crimson, the only limitation to your blush look is your imagination!

Shop all Blush at allbeauty

A History Of Blush - Into The Gloss

A Journey Of Blush Through The Years

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