Before safe and regulated beauty products were available, ancient people used some pretty weird (and gross) ingredients in their makeup. For example, Koremlu was a hair removal cream that contained thallium acetate and rat poison.
They also used lead sulfide in their eyeliner known as kohl. The Egyptians and pharaohs took their beauty rituals seriously; evidence of makeup being applied can be found on burials and tombs.
The Egyptians might be known for their dramatic mummies and death masks, but they’re also the ancestors of some of today’s most common beauty practices. They embraced cosmetics to enhance their looks, protect themselves from the harsh desert environment and improve their health.
Skincare was an important part of the daily routine, with women and men using scented oils to moisturize and soften their complexions. The Egyptians also used ointments to hide body odor, and applied a natural dye — henna — to their cheeks and lips. The henna plant is a relative of the law sycamore, whose leaves make a reddish powder that could be used as lipstick and hair dye.
Egyptians used kohl and malachite — a bright green paste made from copper minerals — to accentuate their eyes. Galena — which they called mesdemet — was another makeup staple that protected their skin from sun damage. Galena is a heavy metal that contains lead, and according to Science Magazine, researchers found that it’s toxic when absorbed by the skin, but applied topically, it releases nitric oxide, which kills bacteria and stimulates macrophage cells to engulf pathogens.
Rich Egyptians had elaborate containers for storing and applying their cosmetics, including spoons carved out of precious stones and beauty grinding slabs. Their tools were a symbol of status, and traces of residue left on these vessels have helped archaeologists identify the pigments and compounds they used. In addition to a daily skincare regimen, wealthy Egyptians would use floral or spice-infused oils and creams to treat rashes, dry skin, acne and blemishes. They might massage their faces with milk-and-honey face masks or a sugar-based hair removal method called neem leaf waxing.
Like their Egyptian counterparts, Romans were big on beauty routines. The ancient world had many harsh environments to cope with and the people who lived in them had to be able to keep their skin looking beautiful under a variety of circumstances. The makeup of the day was a mix of natural and not-so-natural ingredients.
The earliest makeup recipes included a kind of whipped foundation made from a mixture of oils and a substance known as biacca. This was a waxy substance that had the effect of whitening the face. The ingredients were often mixed with herbs, flowers and other substances to create different effects. In the XVI Book of Lucilius’ Satirae, the writer commented that women of the upper class bought hair curlers, greasepaint, cosmetics and a whole host of other products to improve their appearance.
In ancient Rome, like in Greece, white complexions were highly prized. The makeup of the time was a mix of ingredients such as white lead, white marl and chalk powder to achieve pale faces. A rouge of mulberry juice, wine dregs, rose and poppy petals and red chalk was used for cheek color. The makeup bag of the Roman matronae would contain a variety of perfumes as well. The scents were created from a mix of ingredients including saffron, almonds, lilies, myrtle and laurel.
The rich had cosmetics made by slaves or Cosmetae who applied the makeup for them. It was important for a woman to have a good image, so she may have needed to reapply her makeup several times a day depending on the weather and other factors. The Roman Empire fell and it became less common for women to wear makeup but this did not mean that the beauty rituals stopped entirely. As the science of chemistry continues to progress, experts are researching just what was put into these ancient beauty products and some have even recreated some.
Achieving a light complexion was the key to beauty in ancient Greece. Women used various methods of achieving this goal including whiteners, rouge for the cheeks, and black eyeliner/eye shadow. They also wore lipstick and dyed their hair. It is thought that some of these cosmetics were quite harsh and harmful to the skin.
Aside from looking as pale as possible, Greeks favored bright lips and cheeks. Red colored pastes were made using powdered mulberries or crushed red iron oxide and ochre clays or olive oil with beeswax. Dark eye shadows were also popular and they were made from a mixture of clay and charcoal. The kohl-like eyeliner was used to draw the illusion of connected or connected eyebrows as this was considered a desirable look in Greek culture.
Women adorned their heads with jewels and combs to show their status and class in society. They also drew on the skin to enhance their beauty. Whether it was to make their eyes appear larger or to add depth to their face, they did this with powdered metals such as lead and antimony. They would also use a dark reddish substance called egkhousa, which was a kind of dye made from the roots of the plant Alkanna tinctoria or dyer’s alkanet.
Like the Egyptians, Greeks also kept their best cosmetics and perfumes for the dead in slim one-handled jugs called lekythoi. They often buried their deceased with these and other personal items such as food, wine, perfume and other treasures in their tombs. While some ancient writers began to moralize that makeup was a trick only lower-class women or prostitutes used in order to lure men, this did not stop women of all classes, single or married from using the products for beauty purposes.
The Egyptians loved their makeup, and for them, it wasn’t just a way to look good. They used cosmetic paints to protect their skin from the harsh desert environment and even to shield themselves from harmful sunlight. It was also a marker of their social status – Greek traders noted that almost everyone in Egypt wore some form of makeup, and that those of the higher class used more intricate applicators and pots than those of the lower classes.
Among the most important of these beauty products were the black “kohl” and green malachite makeup that was applied to the eyes using sticks made of ivory, wood or metal. These were smudged across the eyes and nose to make them appear larger, and they were designed to protect the eyes from sun exposure. The Egyptians were known for their lip color too, with Cleopatra using a mixture of crushed beetles and ants to create her signature red lipstick.
Aside from protecting the skin, these cosmetics were also meant to attract luck. The earliest surviving archaeological finds of these cosmetics date to 3100 BC (ceremonial palettes for grinding and mixing), but they became more regular discoveries in tombs after 1500BC, often along with the remains of makeup items and the buried pharaoh’s consorts.
Many of the cosmetic items had special meanings for the Egyptians, and residue on the containers helped scientists identify pigments and compounds used in these products. Palettes shaped like fish, for example, were thought to encourage fertility because of their association with the tilapia fish. The tilapia was also a symbol of rebirth and renewal, which was very appropriate for the Egyptians, as they believed that life was cyclical and death was just another step in the cycle.
While squeezing on eyeliner in the morning might seem like just another routine, cosmetics have long held a special significance for humans. In ancient Egypt, for example, men and women of all social classes liberally applied makeup – and even buried it with them. The kohl-ringed styles that have become the hallmark of today’s cat eye weren’t just a fashion trend, but believed to summon protective powers from Hathor, goddess of beauty and fertility.
Like the Egyptians, Romans favored white skin and wore cosmetics to help fight sunspots, flaky skin, blemishes, wrinkles and freckles. They also scented their bodies with fragrant perfumes like kyphi, which was made from frankincense, myrrh, agarwood, mastic, cinnamon and other herbs and resins. It was incredibly expensive, however, and thus reserved for the elite and royalty.
The pharaohs had their own personal perfumers and hairdressers as well as their own gynecologists and plastic surgeons to care for their beauty. A trove of beauty tools have been found in their tombs, including mirrors, hairpins and jars filled with skin cream, lipstick and rouge. And they took their beauty regimen with them to the afterlife, too – archaeological excavations have unearthed jars of lipstick, combs and scented ointments in graves dating back to Predynastic times.
Asses milk was a staple of skincare for wealthy matrons and prostitutes, who could afford to import it from the likes of China, Germany and Gaul. They used it for a wide variety of purposes, but particularly to moisturize their faces and to produce the illusion of longer lashes. One famous Roman woman known as Poppaea Sabina spent so much money on her skincare routine that she had to enlist a squad of slaves to apply it for her.