Before safe, regulated makeup products existed, ancient civilizations had to make do with what they could find. That resulted in some truly weird ingredients.
Unlike today’s face cream, ancient beauty products frequently contained toxic substances like arsenic. The Romans used it in a powder for the skin and to make kohl eye paint, which eventually led to health problems for women who wore it regularly.
Eyeliner and Eye Shadow
When it comes to beauty, ancient Egypt is the source of many iconic looks. Elizabeth Taylor, for example, nailed the Egyptian queen look in her 1963 epic Cleopatra and Rihanna paid tribute to Nefertiti in 2017 for Vogue Arabia. In fact, makeup has been an important part of women’s daily routine for millennia. In Ancient Egypt, women used a wide variety of cosmetics including eyeliner and shadow, nail polish, lipstick, blush, and face powder.
While modern cosmetics may be complicated with chemicals and preservatives, ancient Egyptian makeup was mostly made from minerals, rocks, plants, animal fats, and sometimes even gold. It is likely that the Egyptians took great pride in their makeup, which they made by hand and stored in beautifully carved containers. The round lidded box known as a pyxis and the squat alabastron were typical of the storage containers used to hold perfumes, lotions, and unguents.
The Egyptians were also famous for their cleanliness and grooming habits. They bathed daily and smeared themselves with perfume. They also made hair dyes, skin-whitening preparations, and a variety of other beautifying products. One of the more unusual was a cone of perfumed melted wax or grease that women would wear on their heads at parties.
For the eyes, they used a dark pigment called kohl which could be worn alone or in combination with other colors of eye makeup. They believed kohl protected them from disease and the evil eye, much like we’re all afraid of the cursed cat eye today. Kohl was composed of finely ground galena (lead sulfide) or other materials such as pearls, gemstones, and charred organic materials. It was applied with a stick, and the color could be worn in a range of shades from black to green.
The Egyptians also used the color blue to emphasize their eyes. It was likely mixed with ground lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone. They also wore a pale red ochre makeup on their cheeks that was colored with ground iron oxide and probably mixed with other pigments to achieve the right shade. In fact, the ancient Egyptians were so obsessed with their beauty that they had a special sandstone quarry dedicated to making and grinding makeup.
For thousands of years lipstick has been a symbol of femininity, power and confidence. It’s also been a social signifier, conveying many different meanings depending on the century and location. These messages could range from flirtatious seduction to a statement of status or wealth. In the beginning, ancient civilizations used a variety of natural ingredients such as henna, clay rust and crushed insects to color their lips.
The first recorded use of lip paint is from the Sumerian Civilization. Later, the ancient Egyptians embraced it as a means of showing their social standing. In fact, the women of Egypt were so committed to their lipstick that they would often store it in a circular lidded container known as a pyxis. They would also smuggle in other lipstick-making ingredients such as red dye and even ground crocodile droppings. The Romans, too, enjoyed the power of a bright red pout, as evidenced by wall paintings and depictions of Cleopatra.
Despite its association with prostitution, lipstick continued to grow in popularity. In Ancient Greece, prostitutes were required to sport red lip pigment so that they could be identified as members of the profession. It wasn’t until the Victorian era that Queen Victoria put a halt to lipstick, declaring that it was vulgar and impolite. Rebellious women started clandestine makeup societies and secret beauty establishments to trade recipes and create homemade lipsticks from scratch.
By the end of the 20th century, hippie culture and Mod fashion brought a more natural look back into style (think Twiggy) which caused neutral lip colors to overtake red lipstick in popularity. But it wasn’t until the birth of second-wave feminism and the invention of birth control that a bolder lipstick was made popular again.
It was at this time that Gabriela Hernandez, founder of the brand Gabriela Hearst, created her iconic crimson lipstick inspired by the nascent movement. And in the ’40s, Hazel Bishop patented the first long-wearing lipstick, allowing it to stay on all day without flaking or fading. Today, we carry on this legacy by offering a wide range of classic and contemporary shades from the resolute evangelist that launched our company.
The cheeky rouge most of us smear on our apples is actually one of the oldest cosmetic ingredients. Its origin can be traced to the ancient Egyptians, who were probably the first to cultivate red cheeks as a sign of beauty and sensuality.
They made the rouge by grinding minerals like green malachite and black galena to create a pigment that was then mixed with animal fat and possibly tar or wax. The result was a blush that could be applied with a brush or fingertip. The Egyptians also used a range of other natural ingredients, including crushed berries and insects (cochineal or carminic acids), leaves, bark and blossoms to achieve different shades of red.
As evidence of the popularity of these cosmetics, surviving containers and applicators have been found in Egyptian tombs such as those of Nefertiti (d. 1255 BCE) and Tutankhamun. The Egyptians also kept their best cosmetics and perfumes to accompany them in the afterlife, usually in a circular lidded box called a pyxis or a squat alabastron.
In Classical Greece, makeup was a way of expressing the individuality of women. The Greeks were especially interested in using plants and herbs for their beauty products, often crushing or grinding them into a powdery substance to use as a foundation or eye shadow. They also used kohl liner, a thick black eyeliner that could be worn on the top and bottom lids, and lip color made from a mixture of oils or melted wax.
Despite the fact that pale skin indicated high social status, the Greeks also slathered on rouge to give themselves a healthy glow. A rosy flush was seen as the mark of a woman who was in love and in good health, while a dark shade of rouge meant a mature woman with a high rank and power.
The Romans picked up on the popularity of these ancient cosmetics, and made them their own by experimenting with different ingredients. They were particularly fond of a powdery foundation that could be mixed with water to make it more creamy and easier to apply. They also added a small amount of lead to the mix, which gave them a rich and even pink color, and allowed for a more precise application. The Romans also embraced lipstick, which was used to highlight the lips and add sensuality.
Face powder is one of the oldest makeup products, dating back to ancient Egypt. Women ground up various substances into a dusty powder and applied it to their faces with a brush. They used ash from burned herbs or plants to darken their eyelids and lines around the eyes, and they also tried a range of different recipes for a facial unguent to accentuate their natural beauty. The Egyptians were obsessed with the beauty rituals that they incorporated into their daily lives, and they even authored cosmetics books like Cleopatra’s Secrets of Love.
The Greco-Romans were probably the first to really embrace the look of a pale complexion, and this reflected in many of the artistic depictions of beauty that we have today, from Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Elizabethan paintings. These luscious images of the ideal female beauty often show a woman with an extremely white, flawless face, devoid of any blemishes or freckles.
This preoccupation with beauty was also evident in the surviving crucibles, containers and applicators for cosmetics that are often found in tombs from this period. These are mainly in the form of small vessels such as jars or urns, although there are also beautifully carved caskets (such as the Muse Casket of the Esquiline Treasure) that were presumably made to hold beauty products.
The Romans adopted a number of Greek cosmetic practices, and this included using white and red lead-based pigments in face powder. The extreme paleness that these products gave to the skin, however, resulted in disfigurement and other more serious health problems such as lead poisoning.
Another era where the use of powdered face makeup became commonplace was in China and India. Here, women would apply a white paste to their face, and this served as the base for their other cosmetics. In addition, a range of talcum powders were produced that could be mixed with a variety of other ingredients to create tinted face powders that were more suited to individual complexions.
This powdered face makeup was later introduced into Japan in the Muromachi period (1333-1573) as part of a whole range of new beauty products from China and Korea. These included rouge and a range of face powders in different shades, and they were recommended in detailed written guides on etiquette for women, such as the Shichiju-ichi-ban shokunin uta-awase.