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Ancient Cosmetics

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ancient cosmetics

The usage of cosmetics is well documented in many cultures from the earliest period of recorded history. Written and pictorial records together with remains of ingredients and containers all demonstrate how important body care was to the ancients.

Using makeup was a status symbol in ancient Egypt; men and women of all social classes liberally applied kohl, lipstick, rouge and eye shadow. Their receptacles and applicators were lavish art objects that communicated their social standing.

Eyeliner and Eye Shadow

Though cosmetics might seem like a modern phenomenon, ancient people used them regularly to enhance their appearance. Their makeup routines were often symbolic of the cultural values and rituals they embraced. They might have been meant as protection from harsh sunlight, as an indication of status or as a beauty convention.

Egyptians were probably the first civilization to widely embrace cosmetics for the face. From the earliest eras, women of all social classes liberally applied eyeliner and eyeshadow, lipstick and rouge. The kohl they used to line their eyes, lips and eyebrows was made from ground minerals including green malachite and black galena. It was not only thought to protect the skin from the sun, but also to help improve vision.

The Egyptians were obsessed with their looks, and beauty rituals were often a religious rite. The pharaohs were especially devoted to their appearance and would even have their cosmetics buried with them in the afterlife. Scientists have found jars of powdered makeup, containers for the oils used to create the makeup and stylized tools used to apply them buried alongside their bodies.

Although the kohl they used was often toxic, they did have some luck with other ingredients. The lead in the pigment of the mineral galena, which they dissolved in kohl, may have helped to prevent infection. According to Science Magazine, recent studies have shown that the lead in galena can help fight infections by triggering the release of nitric oxide by keratinocytes.

Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra is famous for her milk baths and saffron oil, both of which have some real benefits. The lactic acid in milk helps exfoliate the skin, while saffron oil contains antioxidants that can help prevent damage caused by UV light.


Kohl, sometimes called kajal in India, was used to create an exotic look and enhance the appearance of a face. In the centuries-old Indian Bharatanatyam and Odissi dances, it is still applied to eyebrows and eyelids to further enhance a performer’s beauty. Its use was also practical, protecting the eyes from the harsh desert sun and guarding against the evil eye.

Kohl is made by grinding natural minerals such as green malachite and black galena into powder. It was usually kept in a small container and applied to the eyes with a rounded or flat implement after first oiling it, then wiping the kohl over the eyebrows and eyelids between nearly closed eyes. Women and men of all social classes were known to apply kohl. They believed that it protected the eyes from the intense desert sun, warded off the evil eye and helped them to distinguish the difference between their own gaze and a demon’s.

Historical archaeological finds show that the Egyptians wore both black and green kohl, with the former becoming more popular during predynastic times. However, archaeologists have also found jars of lead-contaminated kohl in tombs. If not diluted, the lead-sulphide in the kohl could cause lead poisoning and potentially serious complications such as anemia, low IQ, and convulsions.

In addition to kohl, the ancients also had many different types of makeup containers and applicators. They varied in size, shape and material, from calcite jars that held makeup to siltstone palettes that were used to crush and mix materials to a variety of double-blown glass cosmetic tubes for applying the makeup. These elaborately carved implements and containers were considered lavish art objects that communicated one’s status.

Red Ochre

A natural earth pigment that is reddish-brown, ochre has been used by early humans to create paints and dyes. In ancient Egypt ochre was used to color the skin and make rouge, a tinting for women’s lips. Ochre-coloured lines can be seen on the Unfinished Obelisk at Aswan and ochre-coloured powders have also been found in graves in Newfoundland and Australia.

Ochre was a common pigment in the Paleolithic period, appearing in cave paintings as well as on pottery and human skin. Archaeologists believe that these early uses of ochre may have served to communicate important information in low-light conditions. They also suggest that the ability to identify and distinguish ochre colors is a sign of cognitive development in Homo erectus and other primitive humans.

Today, artists use a variety of different types of ochres to create a range of colours and effects in their paintings. Yellow ochres are made from iron oxide, while red ochres contain hematite. Some of the most popular varieties are raw sienna, burnt sienna and umber. Raw sienna and burnt umber are derived from the aerobic natural weathering of sedimentary rock, while hematite is extracted from mines.

Scientists are now investigating whether ochre pigments may have been a source of iron for prehistoric people. Combined with seafood, this iron may have been an essential component in a diet that prevented anemia and contributed to a healthy pregnancy.

Ochre continued to be used in antiquity, though its popularity was eclipsed by the advent of synthetic dyes. The best ochre came from Sinopia, a city on the Black Sea and its quality was so exceptional that it was carried on ship with a seal of approval by merchants. In the 20th century, ochre mining fell out of favour as it was replaced by synthetic colourings and quarries closed one by one.


In ancient times, lipstick was often made with a variety of different ingredients ranging from pigments and waxes to oils and emollients. It was usually formulated to be opaque, but also came in a variety of shades. Lipstick was typically used by women, but men also applied it to enhance their appearance. In modern medicine, lipstick is used to restore a sense of normalcy to cancer patients who may have lost their hair or other body parts due to their treatments. It helps them feel more like themselves and provides a small boost of confidence that is often needed during their difficult time.

The first recorded use of lipstick is found in the Sumerian civilization. The earliest lipsticks were colored berries or henna with natural staining agents such as fruit juice, clay rust, and pulverized insect remains (think cochineal bugs). The earliest known surviving makeup tools include crucibles, containers, and applicators. The Romans and Byzantines of late antiquity were quite fond of their beauty products as can be seen in surviving inscriptions and finely-carved examples of the various tools used to make, keep, and apply them.

For a long time, the Church condemned the use of cosmetics such as lipstick. The use of red lipstick was equated with Satan worship and women who wore it were considered witches or sorcerers. This did not stop women from secretly adding color to their lip salves or using pinching, biting and other methods to make their lips appear redder. Eventually, it was only prostitutes and lower class women who wore lipstick, but this didn’t stop them from using a variety of materials such as beeswax, candelilla and carnauba waxes, glycerin, paraffin wax, coconut oil and cocoa butter, lead, tin, and natural dyes such as madder root, tannic acid and cadmium oxide to make their lipsticks last longer.


Today, we think of blush as a quick way to brighten up in the morning or add a touch of glamour for a night out. But the pinkish powder that millions of women and men around the world apply to their cheeks each day has roots that go back thousands of years.

The ancient Egyptians were big on cosmetics, as they believed that looking good was a reflection of the purity of the soul. Their obsession with beauty was a direct reflection of their religious beliefs and their desire to be honored by the gods in the afterlife. This is why makeup and beauty products can be found on tomb walls in a variety of colors and styles.

Kohl was a common cosmetic used by the ancient Egyptians and was made by grinding minerals such as green malachite and black galena into a powder. The kohl was then used to outline the eyes, which is why it can be seen on many of the busts of queens and other important figures from the Predynastic Period (c. 6000 – 3150 BCE). The makeup also had some practical uses, such as protecting the skin from the sun and deterring insects.

Another common ancient cosmetic was red ochre, which was often combined with vegetable oil and animal fat for use as a blush on the cheeks and to paint fingernails and other parts of the body. The powder could be mixed with natron and ash to make a facial cleanser and it was also used to mark the bodies of the dead for mummification. It’s not surprising that this ancient cosmetic contained lead, which is toxic if ingested or absorbed through the skin. Scientists have recently discovered that the form of lead in which it was used in ancient cosmetics, called galena, acted as an anti-infective agent by activating a compound in keratinocytes that summons macrophages to the area and engulfs pathogens.

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