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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Ancient Cosmetics

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In ancient times, people were constantly seeking ways to improve their appearance and to overcome the many challenges of aging.

Cosmetics and perfumes were widely used throughout history to promote health and beauty. They were also a vital part of religious rituals and the burial process.


Cosmetics are an ancient art that has been around for a long time. They are a way of improving one’s appearance and can be used for both everyday purposes and religious rituals.

In ancient Egypt, beauty was a serious issue and people devoted a lot of time to the application of makeup. It was a way of honoring the gods and goddesses, and was a way of maintaining cleanliness and spiritual purity.

The use of cosmetics was also a way for people to distinguish themselves in social situations. For example, royals were able to stain their fingernails gold and silver. In addition, there was a practice of using rice powder to paint the face white.

Another ancient practice was the use of scented oils to perfume statues, which were an important part of religious rituals. These oils were expensive to produce and could be difficult to get.

It was also common for people to wear lipstick. Lip color was made from ground carmine beetles and was used to enhance the lips.

The ancient Egyptians were known for their luxurious skin care products. They had a wide range of ingredients available to them including olive oil, clay, honey, milk and salt from the Dead Sea.

They also had a range of hair and body treatments for the women. This was important for them because their hair and body would be subjected to the elements of the sun, sand and water that they were exposed to on a regular basis.

The ancient Egyptians were a pioneer when it came to the use of cosmetics. Their love of cosmetics is evidenced by the many makeup canisters and kits found in their tombs.


Ancient cosmetics didn’t just make you look good they also had a health promoting function. The most obvious of these was skin care; lotions and unguents were formulated with natural ingredients like olive oil, aloe vera and shea butter to soothe and moisturize dry, itchy skin.

A little more specialized were products for eyes, lips and ears, many of which had their own special properties. Eye shadow made of the greenest of green pigments was a must have, and the ladies of the time opted for kohl (a combination of burnt almonds, oxidized copper, different colored copper ores, lead, ash, and ochre).

While most of these materials were largely forgotten in the ensuing millennia they have been unearthed in a variety of small containers from spiky glass bottles to calcite jars that are now on display in museums worldwide. Tombs have uncovered some truly fine specimens of the beauty and makeup business, including a few well-carved mirrors with handles in the shape of young women.

The best part was that these were not reserved for the wealthy, but were used by everyone from the nobility to the peasant.

In the ‘olden days’ a woman who wanted to look her best would hire a servant to apply a range of opulent products, ranging from face masks to lip balms, and she probably kept an assortment in a wooden chest next to her razor and tweezers. A number of the most interesting and useful of these items are now on display in a variety of opulent museums.


Cosmetics were not just a fashion accessory in ancient Egypt; they held symbolic, ritual or practical significance. For example, eyeliner and eye shadow were a common form of make-up worn by royalty. In fact, they figured prominently in Egyptian tomb art as well as hieroglyphs.

Similarly, hair dye was another major fad in ancient civilizations. In the neolithic era, women would lighten their locks with plant extracts or arsenic-based hair dyes. This was no doubt a homage to the sun and its rays, but it also a symbol of class and power in ancient times.

One of the more interesting uses of makeup in ancient Egypt was to enhance a person’s brow line. The aforementioned eyeliner and eye shadow were made from minerals like green malachite and black galena, which were ground into a powder with a little water to achieve the desired effect.

It’s easy to see why, since a browline can improve a person’s appearance and boost their self-esteem. In the ancient world, a fuller and thicker browline was a mark of an accomplished woman.

Similarly, the best cosmetics were kept in beautiful and elegant vessels. This collection was often housed in a large wooden chest, with the most elaborate ones made from colored glass (women and fish were a common motif), faience or stone (alabaster was a favored material). It’s a wonder they survived so long. The oldest known jars were found in the tombs of the ancient emperor Pharaoh Ramses II. Using these tiny jugs has been a gold mine for archaeologists – they provide an excellent source of information on the history and manufacture of makeup.


For the ancient Egyptians, makeup was not only a cosmetic but also a means of communicating wealth and status. While poor peasants relied on reed tubes and sticks to apply their makeup, the wealthy had access to finely crafted containers and applicators often made of ivory or other precious materials.

Cosmetic jars, palettes and spoons were highly stylized objects, shaped like animals or young women. They were believed to bestow the strengths associated with the animal they portrayed.

They were also used to ward off evil influences and enhance spirituality. Makeup was made from various pigments believed to contain the mystical and spiritual powers of the animals they were derived from.

Among the early archaeological finds from Egypt were jars and receptacles for makeup that ranged from simple spiky glass bottles to delicately carved palettes that depicted the goddess Narmer and her beauty. The ancient Egyptians believed that makeup matched the radiance of godliness and was an important part of religious rituals.

Another type of container used for cosmetics was a slim one-handled jug called a lekythoi, which is especially designed for storing perfume. It was a common sight in tombs of Greek and Roman nobles, as were other vessels for creams, ointments or unguents found throughout Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations.

These containers were not only useful for storing and transporting cosmetics but were also valuable art objects that communicated wealth and status. These receptacles were made from all kinds of materials, including calcite, gold, semi-precious stones and glass.

In addition to the receptacles, other tools were used for cosmetic application, such as brushes, combs and sponges. These were also highly decorated, sometimes featuring the same symbols as the receptacles. Some were even bejewelled, like the kohl brush that is depicted in an Egyptian hieroglyph.


Lead was used as an ingredient in both paint and cosmetics from Antiquity until the 18th century. It was also the main component in kohl, which was used to make eyeliner.

While ancient Egyptians often used a mix of lead sulfide, ash, and soot to create their kohl, it was also possible to produce a pure form of the mineral by chemical means. This innovative technique allowed them to produce a large quantity of powder in a short amount of time (Schafer, 1956).

In addition to cosmetics, lead was also used to lighten skin and hair. This was especially common in Europe, where women often used white lead paint to lighten their complexions and blond their hair.

For centuries, lead was regarded as a safe and natural way to lighten one’s complexion. However, the use of this pigment was later criticized for its toxicity. It was eventually discovered that the toxic mixture Ceruse, which had become popular, led to facial tremors and muscle paralysis in many users.

In China, a different approach to producing lead white was developed during the first millennium BCE. During this period, lead white was produced by the precipitation method in solution rather than by corrosion. This was distinct from the precipitation method used in ancient Greece. This suggests that the synthesis of lead white in east and west Eurasia occurred independently during this time.

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