Back In The Day: Lipstick

Back In The Day: Lipstick

Of all the hundreds of makeup products saturating the market and lining store aisles today, by far the product with the longest history and greatest reputation is lip makeup. Whether in the form of sticks, powders, pencils or paints, humans have been coloring their lips for at least 5,000 years, since the age of ancient Sumeria. Lip color has been in style for nearly all of human history, in nearly every corner of the world.

When someone today thinks of lipstick worn long ago, their mind probably conjures up the image of a geisha with a white face and blood red lips, and there’s a good reason that image is so enduring. Japanese cosmetics were, for centuries, among the most striking and refined in the world. The bright red lip color worn by noblewomen mystified the more conservative Westerners and cemented Japan’s role as a powerhouse in the beauty industry.

Japanese people had been applying red pigments to their faces since at least the Kofun period, between 300 and 710 A.D. One particular formula that would come to define Japanese lipstick dates back to the Heian period, between the years 794 and 1195 A.D. This particular formula was made from safflowers, or benibana. Safflowers are a bright yellow flower, containing 99% yellow pigment, and a mere 1% red pigment. It’s that 1%, called beni, that lipstick makers painstakingly extracted from the petals in search of the coveted deep red color.

The process of extracting the red pigment is labor-intensive and time-consuming. The safflower blooms are picked by hand, usually in late spring. Then they are crushed up and dried into cakes, which are then soaked in water. An alkaline solution is added to the mixture, and then the mixture is pressed to extract the excess liquid. Then an acidic solution is added to crystallize the red pigment. The result is a muddy substance that can be painted into the signature small bowls, called ochoko, where it dries to a brilliant iridescent green. In this form, it’s known as komachi beni. A single komachi beni bowl holding between 40 and 50 applications takes about two thousand safflowers to produce. With all the work that goes into creating beni, it’s no wonder the product was a luxury item for hundreds of years.

So after all that, how is beni applied? Traditionally, the wearer wets a brush and stirs it lightly in the lacquered bowl to loosen up and moisten the pigment. Once on the brush, it’s ready to apply. Beni was most often applied to the lips, and it could be applied in a single swipe for a pink tint, or more commonly in several layers for the popular blood red color. Beni would also be applied to the cheeks as rouge, or for geisha, to the eyes underneath their black eye makeup for a pop of scarlet.

Speaking of geisha, they had—or technically, still have—a whole language spoken with the application of beni. Typically, apprentice geisha, called maiko, apply beni only to their lower lip. Maiko also wear beni around their eyes more often than more experienced geisha. Even once a geisha is fully fledged and can apply beni to both lips, she will never apply it like Westerners do, over her whole lip. Instead, geisha underline their lips in meticulous shapes to give the impression of a flower bud.

This traditional form of lipstick fell out of fashion little by little during the Meiji Restoration as Japan sought to Westernize itself. Beni adapted in its own way and tried to keep up with typical lipsticks by taking a crayon form, but over time the art of safflower lip paint was more or less forgotten.

However, it’s possible beni in its traditional form isn’t going anywhere. Traditional komachi beni manufacturer Isehan-Honten has been in business since 1825 and is the only surviving business of its kind from the Edo Period. To revive public knowledge of their product, they set up the Isehan-Honten Museum of Beni in the Aoyama area of Tokyo. There, visitors can learn about the history and making of beni, look at traditional packaging from centuries ago, try beni on for themselves, and even buy a beni kit of their own.

Like all makeup, beni is, well, more than just makeup. It’s part of a culture, and it has a lot of stories to tell about the people who used it for centuries and still do today.

Rowan Thompson - August 10, 2020

Acar, Adam. “The Makeup of the Geisha .” Tea Ceremony Japan Experiences MAIKOYA, Maikoya, 13 July 2020,

Nagata, Kazuaki. “'Beni' Maker Aims to Revive Rare Lipstick.” The Japan Times, 25 June 2008,

n.a. “Museum Spotlight: Tokyo's Museum of Beni.” The Makeup Museum, 10 Feb. 2017,

Takahashi, Mitsuko. “Isehan-Honten Museum of Beni-Explore Japan's Traditional Makeup Culture.” MATCHA, MATCHA, 24 Jan. 2017,

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