Cosmetics are substances used on the body or face to enhance a person’s appearance. They are often perfumed and may contain various chemicals.
Ancient people were preoccupied with their appearance. Cleopatra bathed in donkey milk to keep her skin smooth. She also used makeup that contained crocodile dung and snail ashes.
The Ancient Egyptians were one of the first civilizations to take beauty and skincare very seriously. They used scented oils and ointments to clean and soften the skin (and mask body odor), and dyes and paints to color it. They rouged their lips and cheeks, painted on henna to tint nails, and lined their eyes with kohl, a black cosmetic made of powdered galena or stibnite mixed with copper oxide, gum resins, burnt almonds and lead, ochre, ash, malachite and chrysocolla (a blue-green copper ore).
Men and women from all social classes wore makeup and other beauty aids. They shaved and trimmed their hair, used wigs, and wore jewellery. They had a variety of makeup brushes and pots including ones made from ivory and wood.
They took their hygiene very seriously and bathed regularly, using a mixture of clay or ash mixed with scented oils. These would help keep the skin smooth, supple, and prevent wrinkles. They also used a version of deodorant by applying oil to areas where they perspired, and even had some variations on toothpaste.
Like modern day face creams, they applied oils to protect their skin from sunburn and wrinkling. These ointments were usually scented, with a mixture of lavender, peppermint, cedar, rose, and other fragrant plants and flowers.
The Egyptians were also very interested in magic and spirituality. Often, animals were ground into their makeup to imbue it with the strength and powers they believed that animal held. Animal pigments were also used to protect the skin from the harmful effects of the sun.
The ancient Egyptians were a very enigmatic and complex people, but they had a very strong focus on beauty and self-care. Their focus on the body as a temple meant that they wanted to look their best at all times, both in life and death. This is evident from the Book of the Dead, which instructs that a person must be well presented in order to travel through the underworld and onto eternal life. The Egyptians even had their makeup and beauty items placed in their tombs, so they could continue to beautify themselves in the afterlife!
In ancient Greece, beauty was a matter of status. Women wanted pale skin, and they used powders of white lead to lighten it – not knowing that lead is quite dangerous. They also used charcoal, soot and ashes as eyeshadow, eyebrow filler and liner. The Greeks also loved to define their eyes with dark makeup. Unconnected or unibrows were a common look for these women as well.
Another popular trend among ancient Greeks was a red dye for the lips. This is known as egkhousa or enchousa, and it was made from the roots of the plant Alkanna tinctoria or dyer’s alkanet. Aristocratic women especially favored this color, and it was sometimes applied with a brush. In fact, a famous forensic speech was written by the Athenian orator Lysias (lived c. 445 – c. 380 BCE) for Euphiletos who was on trial for the murder of his wife’s lover. The defense was that Euphiletos killed the man because he didn’t like his wife wearing cosmetics and looked unkempt, thus suggesting that she was having an affair.
One of the most interesting things about ancient Greek cosmetics is that they often contained many different herbs, flowers and other natural ingredients. They were quite liberal with this, and the result was a more natural look than Egyptian makeup.
It is also a fact that unlike Egyptians, ancient Greeks were not afraid of using perfumes. They were widely used for both the pure pleasure they gave and their role in seduction rituals.
The Greeks also had an interesting system of storing and dispensing their cosmetics. Tombs have revealed spiky glass vessels, called lekythoi, which were used for storing perfumes and oils. These were dedicated to the dead and were often decorated with themes related to burial and travelling into the next life.
It is thought that the Romans inherited many Greek cosmetic traditions, and they took them to the next level. The Etruscans, who were the bridge between Greece and Rome, also used Greek recipes to make their own lotions and potions for enhancing beauty and anointing the dead. Tombs have also revealed beautiful jugs made from marble, faience and terra cotta which were used for storing various perfumes and oils.
The Romans, like the Egyptians, were very concerned about their appearance. For women the ideal was pale skin, soft and lustrous hair and large bright eyes. To achieve this they used a variety of cosmetics and beauty treatments including lotions, ointments, oils, perfumes and scented powders. Many of these products were aimed at moisturising and enhancing the complexion but others had more ambitious goals like whitening the skin, removing freckles, fading dark spots or smoothing wrinkles.
Many of the ingredients were locally available but a few like crocodile dung, Tyrian vermillion and cinnabar were imported from abroad. In fact, some were so expensive that they could only be afforded by wealthy women and were referred to as ‘designer brands’. They were even marketed in elegant containers and boxes of which one fine example is the Muse Casket of the Esquiline Treasure.
It’s worth noting that while many of these ingredients would have been considered natural, some were also used for their medicinal properties. In addition to whitening agents the Romans used ingredients like ground oyster shells, honey, kohl made from charcoal or ash, saffron to colour the eyelashes and antimony (book 34) to remove unsightly growths.
As with earlier cultures, surviving written sources can provide useful clues to the makeup and cosmetic tools used by the Romans but archaeological finds are often more helpful. Surviving containers of varying shapes and sizes, crucibles, spoons and applicators are a great aid to our understanding of the cosmetics that were used in daily life.
A key piece of evidence is the range of coloured pigments used to colour the face. For blushers Romans turned to poppy and rose petals, red chalk, alkanet and cinnabar while lipstick was usually made from beeswax or a mixture of gum Arabic with frankincense. Other colours, like the green and blue that were used on the eyelids, were obtained from minerals such as natron, azurite and malachite while crocodile dung was often used to make a black paint for the lips.
Of course, it wasn’t just about the skin and these cosmetics were used to enhance the hair too. Long, luscious locks were a mark of wealth and the Romans employed many ways to enhance it from simple dyeing with mulberry juice to using henna to highlight the eyebrows or hairline.
For the ancient Indians, makeup was not merely a cosmetic but a religious and cultural practice. In fact, some even kept their beauty kits buried with them in their graves! The use of makeup varied according to status; Queens wore elaborate makeup while the commoners just stuck to the obligatory elements. The main attraction of ancient Indian makeup was the kohl or kajal that adorned the eyes of both women and men. It was believed to protect the wearer from evil and lustful glances. It is also used as a symbol of auspiciousness and a mark of purity.
The main cosmetic ingredients were primarily herbal or vegetal. These included sandalwood, turmeric, neem, tulsi or holy basil, henna, shikakai and aloe vera. They were astringents as well, and used for toning the skin and treating hair loss. They were also used as a skin colouring agent for those who wanted paler skin. Indians created a skin bleaching product by mixing costus root, sesame seeds, lebbeck leaves and pongamia pea plant leaves with barberry wood and cedar wood.
Henna is another important ingredient that was used for both hair and skin. It had a base of Ayurvedic healing and was used to treat heat rashes, fevers and heat burns. Later it became an important decorative cosmetic and was used to colour the hair, and paint designs on the hands and feet of women – a tradition that continues even today.
Other colouring agents were made from plants like the bark of the missee tree, hibiscus flowers and madder. Other cosmetics included a special ointment for wrinkles, made of red ochre and kohl, a poultice for scars and a remedy for baldness, consisting of a mixture of knotgrass and carob.
Indians also adorned themselves with the bindi, or red circle of virtue, on their forehead. This was a sign of marriage and a symbol of devotion to god. They also drank the water of amla or Indian gooseberry, a popular natural remedy for skin and hair care. The philosophies of Ayurveda provided many other remedies for hair and skin care that are still in use to this day.