Europe is the world leader in cosmetics production, with a combined value of nearly €80 billion a year. It’s a complex industry, with a rich history and a cutting edge future.

The cosmetics industry is an incredibly important part of the economy of Europe, employing over 2 million people, and producing exports worth €23.44 billion in 2019. While global competition in the US, China, and Japan is driven by a few dominant manufacturers, the European landscape is more diverse, with major global brands like L’Oreal and Sephora sharing the market with smaller, specialty companies, particularly in Italy and Germany. But how did Europe’s cosmetics industry come to beautify the world?  

Origins of the Cosmetic Industry

Archaeological evidence shows that humans have been painting their bodies since the emergence of homo sapiens as a species. Currently it’s believed that mud and mineral pigments were used to decorate the skin during rituals and social events. Famously, ancient Egyptians lined their eyes with kohl, a practice that spread to ancient Rome and Persia. The Bible refers to the beauty of Queen Jezebel, who painted her eyelids in 840BC, and in ancient China the upper classes were painting their fingernails in 3000BC.

In Europe in the Middle Ages, cosmetics were gradually used less for a decorative or ritual purpose, but increasingly to indicate youth and wealth. Lower classes were typically employed in outdoor manual labor, which darkened and aged the skin. Using powders and paints on the face created the pale, aristocratic look, which Queen Elizabeth called “the Mask of Youth.”

The practice of using paints and cosmetics to lighten the skin remained popular into the 20th century. At the time, makeup was mainly used by prostitutes and stage performers, and was sold at theatrical supply stores, but people used paints and powders to lighten the skin, and women stained their lips with flower petals. 

In 1872, petroleum jelly was introduced as “Vaseline,” a product originally used to heal cuts and burns. But it soon grew in demand as a cosmetic product, used to soften the lips, smooth hair, and clean the skin, and is still produced by Unilever and frequently used in those ways today. 

The Emergence of Makeup

In the early 1900s, with the emergence of mass media and celebrity culture, the world became fascinated by legendary ballet stars Mathilde Kschessinska and Sarah Bernhardt. The UK’s Daily Mirror began publishing information on how women could achieve these looks, suggesting the use of an eyelash curler and introducing the idea of using a pencil to elongate the shape of the eye. At the same time, Polish beautician Maksymilian Faktorowicz had achieved fame for his work with theatre and dance troupes, and been appointed the official cosmetics expert for the Russian nobility and the Imperial Russian Grand Opera (today known as the Bolshoi Theater). In 1904, concerned about growing anti-Jewish sentiment, Faktorowicz and his family emigrated to the United States, where he changed his name to Max Factor. 

In 1909, he opened a hair and makeup store in Los Angeles, catering to the emerging film industry. However, traditional theatrical makeup was unsuited for film: it was designed to be seen at a distance, and would often crack and break when the face was in expressive motion. Factor began mixing various compounds to make new makeups that would look better on film, and in 1914 finalized his formula for a flexible greasepaint designed for the movies. His foundation was launched in 12 shades, applying it himself and customizing it for the lighting on set, and nobody wanted to appear on film without it. 

In the 1920s, Max Factor began marketing his cosmetics to the public, claiming that any woman could look like a star. He also stopped referring to his products as “cosmetics” and started calling them “makeup,” and the rest is history. 

Cosmetics in Europe

While the cosmetics industry in the US was driven by celebrity culture and the desire to “look like a star”, the European cosmetics industry has always been driven by a slightly different ethos. In 1907, French chemist Eugène Schueller launched a hair color formula he called Oréal, and officially founded L’Oréal in 1919. His guiding principle was “research and innovation in the interest of beauty”, and the company has never strayed from that foundation. 

L’Oréal is the world’s largest cosmetics company, with an estimated value of $162.5B, and directly employing 88,000 people. It has six R&D facilities around the world, responsible for some incredible innovations, including:

  • Episkin: Episkin develops human skin cells into sheets of reconstructed skin, and can be adapted to all skin colors and textures. It’s a safe and effective way to develop and test cosmetics without testing on animals, and creates results that are more relevant to human skin. 
  • Bioprinting: In 2015, L’Oréal announced that it was partnering with bioprinting startup Organovo to 3D print living, breathing skin that can better be used to test products for effectiveness and toxicity. 
  • Modiface: L’Oreal acquired beauty tech company Modiface, which uses augmented reality to allow users to digitally “try on” makeup and hairstyles. 
  • Perso: L’Oreal’s Perso App, scheduled to launch in 2021, uses artificial intelligence to create custom cosmetics shades and formulas and recommend custom skin care products. 

In 2017, L’Oreal helped open the world’s largest startup campus as part of their Open Innovation program, acting as an accelerator to develop the next generation of beauty products, devices, and services. 

The ethos of research, science, and innovation established by L’Oreal is integral to the entire European cosmetics industry, which collectively spends more than €2.35B annually on R&D. In 2018, the European cosmetics industry supported at least 77 scientific facilities and employed nearly 29,000 scientists. As a result, not only is the industry a massive financial success, but it helps people look and feel better. Over 72% of cosmetics consumers feel like their beauty products improve their quality of life. 

Current Opportunities in Cosmetics

Despite the influence of L’Oreal, the real strength of Europe’s cosmetic industry is in its diversity, and the coexistence and cooperation of large and small companies. In fact, there are more than 5,800 small and medium cosmetics companies in Europe, and they are key drivers of innovation and growth in the industry. The “Cosmetic Valley” in France, consisting of three regions of Northern France and designated a “competitive cluster”, comprises more than 400 member companies, has created over 90,000 jobs, and has an annual turnover of €26B. This cluster alone has backed more than 175 R&D projects, and represents the work of 8 universities, 226 laboratories, and 8,200 public and private researchers.  

The cosmetics industry generates revenue and opportunities throughout the value chain. From investing billions in research and development, to employing thousands of people in marketing, sales, and project management, to extensive work on quality and compliance, to spending millions of euros on packaging, to the wholesale and retail distribution, the impact of cosmetics is hard to overstate. While the direct manufacturing of cosmetics generates around €11B per year, it is estimated to create approximately €29B in revenue throughout the supply chain.  

Today, the cosmetics industry in Europe is actively hiring in nearly every scientific and technical discipline, offering jobs in physics, biology, microbiology, toxicology, physiology, nanoscience, analytical chemistry, genetics, rheology, and more. Cosmetic industry jobs are creative, innovative, and challenging, and scientists in this sector work every day to make people look and feel better. It represents fantastic job opportunities for researchers and scientists, and grapefrute is the best way to find cosmetic industry jobs, or to recruit and hire the next generation of scientists who make this industry a success.