COLUMBIA, S.C. – Hundreds of years ago, a woman who used lipstick quite literally took her life in her hands.

In the centuries before MAC and Clinique, before Revlon and Maybelline, anyone who wanted to accentuate her lips had to use a product colored with cinnabar, a poisonous red shade of mercury. If she ingested enough of it, she made a great-looking corpse.

In some modern-day fundamentalist countries, women caught wearing lipstick have had it forcibly removed with a razor blade. These facts help lessen the pinch of shelling out $20 for a safe 21st-century lipstick in a democratic nation, but they also make you wonder why we’re willing to go through it all – poisoning, punishment and the fury of realizing we bought the wrong color and can’t return it to the lab-coated saleswoman at the cosmetics counter.

The answer may have something to do with self-expression. Mascara is generally black or brown, blush is red or pink, and you can’t get too wacky with eyeshadow on a daily basis if you wish to stay gainfully employed.

That leaves your lips as the sole playground for creativity. And if it doesn’t work, it’s no big deal to wipe it off and start again.

Lipstick trends change faster than you can leave a kiss-mark on the rim of a coffee cup from the fire-engine red of the ’50s to the white mouths of the ’70s to the minimalist look of a decade ago. Right now, cosmetics experts say, women are going for long-lasting, high-shine products.

“A lot of women like to mimic the movie stars, singers and models with their hot glossy lips,” said Rosemary Ro-tay of Ro-tay’Skin Care Studio Plus in Columbia, who makes up brides and prom-goers on their big days. She said women often come in with a particular star in mind, such as Halle Berry or Faith Hill.

The glossy/long-lasting combo was, until recently, an almost-impossible combination: Glossy lipsticks are notorious for having to be applied repeatedly, while lines that last all day tend to dry out the lips and look – to use the technical term – icky. But many new lines are aimed at bringing shine and stamina together: Lancome’s Juicy Colour ($19.50) as well as Estee Lauder’s Lip Vinyl ($20) and Pure Color ($22) are several.

While lipstick colors reflect popular style, lipstick sales reflect the mood of the American consumer. In a phenomenon The Estee Lauder Companies call The Leading Lipstick Indicator, women tend to buy more lipstick during recessions. (When you can’t afford new outfits, you go for small, affordable luxuries instead).

On a recent morning at Columbia’s Richland Mall, Ann Henry was among the women perusing the ever-expanding cosmetics universe. But she went for the tried-and-true – buying not one, but two of the same shade of – Lancome lipstick. “I keep one in my purse, one on the bathroom counter,” she said. “Lipstick makes you feel good – I don’t feel like I’m dressed till I have on my lipstick.”

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