Part of our morning ritual is to stand in front of a mirror applying cosmetics – like a moisturiser or foundation – to fix or minimise imperfections in our complexion. We all know that cosmetics have an extended history that goes back to prehistoric times but it is less well known that complexion also has a long story.

The term ‘complexion’ originally comes “from the Latin con (with or together) and plectare (to plait or twine)” (Connor, 2004, p. 19), the reason being that the complexion was originally thought to be the product of the balance between the body humours.

Body humours

In the West the concept of body humours was developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans and then passed down through the ages as an explanation of disease. It was based on the idea that everything in the world was made up of four elements – earth, fire, water and air – and that there were four body fluids, called humours – blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile – that corresponded to each of these four elements.

The humours were thought to be in a constant state of flux – with their change depending on factors such as diet and activity – and their presence and imbalance was believed to affect a person’s health, even determining what we would now refer to as personality, temperament or disposition; e.g., too much black bile would make you melancholic. Traces of this thinking can still be found in our language today when we talk of people being ‘cold’ or ‘hot tempered’.

When physicians of the Middle Ages looked at a person’s complexion, they saw it as not a thing in itself, but rather, as the outward sign of the state of the body’s humours. They examined it for signs of imbalance, with skin blemishes being seen as places where excess humours were trying to get out. The colour of the skin was particularly important as an excess of any one colour – red, black, white or yellow – could be related to an overabundance in one of the four humours.

Should such signs be found, then the physician’s job was to rebalance the humours – through herbal remedies, emetics, purges, fasting and/or changes to the diet– or to open an escape path for them – through blood-letting, blistering or scarification of the skin – so that those making the person sick could be cleared.

Although the humoural theory dominated medical thinking up until the eighteenth century, by the sixteenth century it had began to lose its relationship with the complexion which now began to refer primarily to the “natural colour, texture and appearance of the skin” (The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, 1991) gradually dropping its association with the humours and a person’s temperament. However, the connection between humours and skin problems took a long time to disappear and could still be found in the nineteenth century.

We have no doubt, however, that one of the most frequent causes of sunburn is to be sought for in the superabundance of bile which the heat of summer, as well as hot rooms, so often produces.

(The art of beauty, 1825, p. 118)

As the humoural theory waned, the word complexion widened its meaning and today, as before, we associate our complexion with the state of our health as well as being a visual indication of our age.

Complementary medicine

The idea of body humours was not confined to European medicine. It also appears in different forms in India and China and it is from these traditions that it is being reintroduced into the West through Ayurvedic, traditional Chinese, and other complementary medicines. Consequently we have seen a return of the practices of purging, fasting and even scarification of sorts (acupuncture) although fortunately, not bloodletting.


By the seventeenth century, the word complexion became associated with cosmetics, which were described as being able to ‘give a complexion’ to the face. Cosmetics preparations had the “power to adorn, embellish, or beautify (esp the complexion)” (The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, 1991). This change in terminology was associated with a lot of concern by men worried about being deceived by women covering up the effects of smallpox and other diseases with cosmetics or ‘adjusting’ their age – about ‘natural’ compared with ‘artificial’ complexions.

The concern with artificial complexions was still present towards the end of the nineteenth century but in Western society the use of cosmetics was on the increase – after going through a period where it was not considered acceptable practice – and the social stigma associated with using them was declining. This trend accelerated in the twentieth century and as the usage of cosmetics increased, their manufacture, like that of perfumes, evolved from a cottage industry into the major commercial enterprise we know today.

Updated: 24th November 2014


The art of beauty. (1825). London: Knight and Lacey.

The compact Oxford english dictionary, (2nd ed.). (1991). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Connor, S. (2004). The book of skin. London: Reaktion Books.