Ancient men and women were big on cosmetics and perfumes. Often the ingredients were safe, but others were not.
For example, white face powder used by Egyptians contained a dangerous heavy metal called galena. And the Egyptian eyeliner known as kohl contained lead. Frequent use of this ingredient eventually led to serious health problems.
The ancient Egyptians were big on cosmetics, believing that a pristine face was the key to a good life. They were particularly fond of eye paint—kohl, made from ground minerals like green malachite or black galena—which they viewed as having protective powers against the sun and other evils. They also slathered themselves in face powders to make their skin lighter and more radiant, as evidenced by the many jars of such cosmetics found in tombs dating back to the Predynastic period (c. 6000–3150 BCE).
The Egyptians were also very fond of perfumes, which they used to fragrance their bodies and even to anoint statues in their temples. In fact, one of the oldest and most famous perfumes to survive from ancient Egypt is called hepesh, which was made by grinding bits of mumiya tree resin with spices such as nutmeg. The result was said to have aphrodisiac and euphoric properties, and despite its toxic ingredients—it was a combination of thulium acetate, which is still dangerous, and rat poison—hepesh is considered an ancestor of today’s talcum powder.
For the wealthy, a set of cosmetics was often included in their funeral treasure, which could include pots of various colors to use as face paint and body powders, perfumed oils, and special brushes for applying the products. These brushes are surprisingly well-preserved, with some being as long as a finger and made from materials like flint and bone. They would have been used to create the rich and velvety complexions seen on portraits of people from the Ptolemaic dynasty, including Cleopatra—whose beauty was captured in the 1963 film starring Elizabeth Taylor.
Like their Western Roman counterparts of Late Antiquity, the Egyptians were preoccupied with appearance. Both men and women used hair dyes (a boy’s urine was thought to work wonders), preparations for removing hair, and lotions to moisturize the skin. As in other cultures, the Egyptians stored and used their cosmetics from containers such as reed tubes or finely-crafted caskets carved from faience, glass, and stone.
In ancient Rome, both men and women used beauty products to convey their health, wealth and status. A popular Roman beauty treatment was kohl made from charcoal or ashes mixed with beeswax and almond oil. For eye makeup, the Romans would use a paste of burnt cork to add a smokey look and colourful greens and blues could be added to the eyes with the help of various natural pigments. The Romans also used rouge, a mixture of red chalk and flower petals. However, many of the Romans’ favourite rouge ingredients were not so safe, like cinnabar (a bright red form of mercury), and even crocodile dung!
The Romans were obsessed with their appearance and were not afraid to go all out in the name of beauty. As with the Egyptians, the Romans kept their cosmetics in exquisitely designed containers such as a casket containing two-part eye and face makeup container and a perfume flask. Many crucibles, pots, bottles and applicators have been found that would have been used in the preparation and application of these cosmetics. The cosmetics were made up of a blend of natural and not-so-natural ingredients including beeswax, ground oyster shells, honey, crocodile dung and even a little bit of mercury!
However, despite the popularity of these beautifying treatments in ancient Roman society, they were still considered deceitful and the products were sometimes even harmful. The poet Juvenal wrote that a woman who wears perfumes and lotions is doing so with adultery in mind while the philosopher Seneca believed cosmetics to be a means of deceiving and therefore damaging her moral fibre.
Despite the sexist views of ancient Roman culture towards women and their obsession with beauty, some women did manage to achieve a natural and healthy-looking glow. Long, thick hair was the most desirable appearance as it meant wealth and good health. The Romans therefore used waxes and dyes to make their hair lighter or darker, or both, and to create elaborate hairstyles that were not possible with natural hair. In addition, they often wore wigs and other hair replacements.
Long before factories started making cosmetics, there was a global beauty ritual for skin and hair care. Many cultures used natural products sourced from nature to exfoliate, moisturize, and tone the complexion. These were used in a variety of ways from dry brushing like Cleopatra to henna for color. These were the beauty tools that made it possible for women to achieve their sexy, glowing complexions.
Henna was used by Ethiopians to create a reddish hue that was both natural and permanent. It also had a mystical value that was thought to promote good luck and fertility. It was often used by brides on their big day. Other cosmetics included kohl eyeliner and lipstick. In order to achieve a more defined appearance, women would wear a base with fine powders like chalk or crushed minerals and plants. The ancients considered beauty as a way to achieve spiritual perfection. Some even buried their cosmetics to meet their needs in the afterlife. They were buried with a palette on which they could grind their own cosmetics, brushes for applying kohl or ocher, tubes to store their kohl liner, and ivory hair combs.
The Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum was the center of a great civilization. Its people were called Ityopya or Abyssinia in Greek. The name derived from the Semitic word “Aithiops.”
Ethiopia has long had a diverse population with ties to three of the Abrahamic religions. The country has an abundance of natural resources and is the source of the Nile River. It has suffered from famines and civil war. It was once ruled by dictator Mengistu who instituted brutal policies and abused the human rights of his people.
In recent times, the country has been undergoing some economic growth. It has become a popular destination for tourists because of its rich cultural history and the beautiful landscapes. This has helped to bring the economy back up after years of turmoil. The country is now a democracy. Ethiopia has a lot of potential and is on the rise, especially in the technology industry. This is a very exciting time to invest in this beautiful country and its people.
In ancient Greece beauty was a big deal. In fact, the word ‘cosmetics’ itself comes from the Greek words Kosmetikos (beautiful) and kosmetikoi (beautifying). This group of people was quite obsessed with appearance and incorporated natural cosmetics into their daily lives.
For example, olive oil was used to keep skin soft and moisturized. Honey was another popular ingredient, and even today honey is a mainstay in many lotions thanks to its antibacterial properties. They were also known to use roses, mulberries, saffron and lotus flowers to add color to their skin and hair. The Greeks also favored pale complexions using white lead which was eventually replaced by chalk powder due to the high number of deaths caused by slow lead poisoning. Crushed berries were also popular for lip and cheek stains, while kohl or powdered antimony was used to darken eyes and make them appear more prominent. They also liked heavy and thick eyebrows, often with connecting points (unibrows). The Greeks used a combination of charcoal and clay to create eyeliner and mascara.
The use of makeup in this culture is evidenced in paintings and burial sites as early as 1500 BCE. Tombs reveal a wide range of small containers, spiky glass bottles and delicate tools to hold unguents, pastes and oils. Some were perfumes. They were made from oils extracted from animals, a process which is still practiced to this day. Oils were also pressed from plants like olives, sesame and almonds. Other products included lye which was derived from wood ash and combined with fats to make soap.
The Greeks were so devoted to their looks that some of their finest cosmetic items and perfumes were taken with them to the grave. A common sight in tombs is a lekythoi, which were slim one-handled jugs used for holding fine perfumes and oils for the journey into the afterlife. This is an intriguing and unusual aspect of the Greeks’ relationship with their beauty and personal hygiene.