Many ancient cosmetics were made from toxic ingredients like lead. White face makeup, for example, was often crafted with the chemical tin oxide.
In Roman times, pale skin was a mark of wealth and status. Women used rouge to pinken their cheeks and look more ‘healthy’. Some of these rouges were formulated with not-so-safe ingredients such as crocodile dung.
The ancient Egyptians may be best known for their mummies, but the cosmetics they used to enhance their appearance were anything but trivial. The men and women of ancient Egypt followed a strict routine of skincare, hygiene, and makeup that was as much about ritual and religious significance as it was about vanity.
Their beauty regimens are evident on their cartonnage masks and wooden coffins, which feature idealized images of deceased people with smooth skin and dark kohl-rimmed eyes. In fact, mummification itself followed several of the typical daily self-care rituals that the Egyptians practiced while alive, including using unguents for softening and beautifying the skin.
In the hot and arid desert environment, they also prioritized moisturizers for their complexions and used rouge and lip color to protect their delicate lips from sun damage. The red pigments on their cheeks and lips were likely made from ochre, a natural-tinted clay that contains hydrated iron oxide and can be mixed with animal fat or vegetable oils. The ancient Egyptians loved fragrance, too, with their most popular perfume being kifi, which contained a blend of frankincense, myrrh, mastic, pine resin, cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, and juniper.
The Egyptians used brushes to apply their facial paints, and one of the most common was a brush-stick from the salvadorapersica tree. They also used black kohl for eyeliner and green malachite for eye shadow. They may have even worn mascara, but we are not sure about this because only a few examples have been found.
As early as 10,000 BCE, the ancient Egyptians began slathering their bodies with scented oil and ointments to clean their skin and mask body odor, dyes to color it, and talcum powder to keep it silky-smooth. They also rubbed their faces with paints for color and lining their eyes and nails with henna.
Although the ancient Egyptians weren’t the first to use makeup, they were the earliest innovators. Their innovations helped shape the beauty practices of many later cultures, from the Aegean and Greeks to the Romans. Today, we still draw on Egyptian beauty secrets—kohl eyeliner and lipstick, for example—and their ideas about aesthetics continue to have a powerful influence.
Until safe and regulated makeup products were developed, ancients were very creative in their beauty regimens. It is no surprise then that they used a variety of weird ingredients to achieve their desired looks.
In the Greek era, women had a very high standard of beauty. It was believed that a beautiful woman had a soft body and rounded buttocks as well as long wavy hair. The Greeks used a variety of natural cosmetics and made an effort to look healthy. The idea was to enhance what nature gave them and not cover it up like in modern times.
The Greeks also had a particular preference for paler skin which was seen as a sign of wealth and prestige. They used a product called “cerussa”, which was basically white lead, to lighten their face. In order to keep their skin looking clear and wrinkle free, they also used a special powder. The Greeks thought that connected eyebrows were a sign of beauty and they would use a dark powder to make them look joined or linked together.
In addition to skin creams and powders, the Greeks also used perfumes. These were often scented and were made using things such as rose petals or honey. They also had a range of different hair dyes, both for men and women. Some of these were a darker color and used things such as leeches left to rot in wine for 40 days while others were lighter and used a mixture of beech wood ash and goat fat.
Women in ancient Greece wore their hair up most of the time, except when they were single or unmarried. They would tie it up into a bun or use combs and ornaments to decorate it. They also swathed their hair with oil and used scented perfume. The Greeks even had an ancient form of lip gloss that they rubbed onto their lips to make them feel soft and smooth.
When most people think of ancient Rome, images of gladiators and lions or temples come to mind but the Romans were obsessed with their beauty too. They had opulent bath houses and their love of clean, glowing skin can still be seen in the many ruins and artifacts they have left behind. They also used a variety of cosmetics and perfumes. Some of these were very strange and unimaginable to us but thanks to experimental archaeology and a desire to recreate these ancient perfumes, some of their ingredients have been discovered.
The Romans continued the cosmetic traditions of their Egyptian and Greek predecessors but they pushed the boundaries further. They were not afraid to use exotic and even poisonous products for the sake of beauty. For instance, a kajal made from antimony mixed with soot was used for lining the eyes and was applied with a rounded stick that could be made of ivory, bone, glass or wood. It is thought that this was to ensure that the product would not smudge or run and to add to its longevity.
They were also fond of using face masks and salves that had been whipped and contained various ingredients to counteract ageing, blemishes, freckles and uneven skin tone. They also had a wide variety of powders, creams and perfumes that were used to enhance their natural beauty.
The wealthier women of the empire were even fonder of coloured nails and eyelashes than their counterparts in Egypt. They could be coloured with ingredients such as cinnabar and red lead, as well as sulphur, tyrian vermillion, crocodile dung and mulberry juice.
A number of jars, pots and applicators have been found with the residue of these cosmetics on them. It is clear that a lot of time and effort went into creating these formulas as they were expensive and difficult to make. They were often kept in elaborately made caskets, such as the Muse Casket of the Esquiline Treasure (pictured).
The use of cosmetics is a common activity among human civilizations dating back thousands of years. This includes body paints which may have had a religious significance such as the Egyptians’ kohl eyeliner. Similarly, the dyes used for marking eyebrows or lips may have indicated social status. In addition, some ancient beauty regimens were quite medicinal such as those involving oils and creams for softer skin or the lotions and unctions using natron and ash to cleanse the skin. Other ancient cosmetic applications had more ambitious effects such as pastes to cure baldness or reverse greying hair.
During the early modern period, cosmetics became more readily available to the general public. This was mainly due to the increase in trade and the growth of factories. The advent of mass-production and advertising in the 20th century gave rise to many new cosmetics which are now very familiar to us.
It is important to note that, throughout history, there have been many dangerous ingredients in cosmetics which were not as well regulated as they are today. For example, in the Victorian era, there were some cosmetics that would pale complexions which contained wafers spiked with arsenic and others, like the Egyptians’ kohl eyeliner, was made from a toxic form of lead sulfide.
Although the use of visible “paint” cosmetics by men and women alike continued into the eighteenth century, shortly after the American Revolution this slowly began to disappear from American society. By this time, most paint cosmetics were still manufactured abroad and supplied to American ladies through recipes and articles in women’s magazines or at druggists.
However, even into the nineteenth century it was not uncommon for women to make their own cosmetics at home. These could include a variety of recipes for lotions and powders to lighten their skin, remove blemishes, or diminish freckles. They would also prepare face washes, creams, and other treatments for their hands and nails. Occasionally, they would crush fresh geranium petals or other plants to use as lipstick and blusher for a natural glow.
The flapper look begins to emerge in America which encourages increased use of cosmetics such as rouge for the cheeks and lip, red nail polish, and suntans. Max Factor introduces “society makeup” which allows women to imitate the looks of the stars on screen. In addition, Procter & Gamble begins sponsoring daytime television shows (a precursor to today’s soap operas).