For centuries, cosmetics have been a big part of daily life. Ancient recipes and ingredients continue to amaze scientists, who use them for skincare & fragrances.
The Egyptians were big on appearance with beauty & hygiene having religious significance. Fragrant ointments were even used on statues during rituals. They also kept their best cosmetics & perfumes in lekythoi, slim one-handled jugs for burial.
Civilizations across the globe have used cosmetics – though not always in modern ways – for centuries in religious rituals, as protection from harsh sun and other environmental factors, as an indication of class and conventions of beauty, to promote good health, and even at the very end of life to help their earthly bodies transition to their afterlife. The Ancient Egyptians are renowned for their extensive use of cosmetics and their emphasis on beauty.
Both men and women in Egypt routinely used scented oils and ointments to clean their skin and mask body odor. They rouged their lips and cheeks and wore red makeup made with pigments from minerals like copper-based ochre. They dyed their hair with henna (a plant-based natural dye) and stained their nails with a type of kohl.
They wore jewelry of all kinds including bracelets, necklaces and earrings adorned with pendants shaped as animals or plants. They also sported wide collar necklaces of beads and chains bearing a protective amulet. Cleopatra is particularly famous for her milk baths to keep her complexion supple and youthful. It is believed that the lactic acid in the milk helps to exfoliate, revealing smoother and younger looking skin. She is also credited with using coffee scrub, which relieves inflammation, enhances blood flow, eliminates dead skin cells, reduces puffiness, and improves tone and texture.
The Ancient Egyptians were also very particular about their eye makeup. They lined their eyes with mascara-like black makeup and kohl, which was actually a mixture of lead sulfide and ash or soot. The use of kohl eventually led to serious health problems in many Egyptians, and it is now known that frequent use of lead-laced products can cause blindness.
The Egyptians placed a high value on fragrance and the blending of different essential oils to create unique scents. They poured perfumed cones of a mixture of beeswax, myrrh and other essential oils over their heads during social gatherings to emit an aromatic scent. They also sprayed perfumed oils on their shoulders and necks to smell great in public.
Cosmetics (from the Greek kosmetikos, to adorn) have been an important focus of cultural norms and social status for thousands of years. Despite their importance, however, the use of cosmetics has been under-studied in archaeology. This is partly due to the high costs and technical skills required to produce early cosmetic products.
The Etruscans provided a cultural bridge between the Greeks and Romans in many ways, including in their use of beauty and fragrance. They imported Greek cosmetics for a while, then developed their own recipes and ingredients to make lotions and potions locally. Tombs have revealed small containers and spiky glass bottles used to store unguents, pastes and oils. Small tools to extract the cosmetics from these vessels have also been found.
Like the Ancient Egyptians, the Etruscans were preoccupied with appearance and beauty. They wore elaborate clothing and jewelry made of gold, amber and ivory. Their women had refined makeup and dyed hair. They were known to be excellent herbalists as well, so it makes sense that they would use herbs for skincare and cosmetic purposes too.
At its height, the Etruscan civilization occupied a large swathe of central Italy that is today part of modern Tuscany. The Etruscans had a number of independent city-states that were sometimes at war with one another, as well as trade links with other cities in the Mediterranean and beyond.
The Etruscans were a wealthy people with an advanced culture that produced a wide range of artistic objects. They were considered to be a highly civilised society and the ‘bellissime da vedere’ (beautiful to see) by the Greeks and Romans, although they were also criticised for being hedonistic pleasure-seekers.
A recently published study has identified residue on a bronze vessel from the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 bce) that is a clear indication of a cosmetic ingredient. The residue was analyzed to reveal the presence of a type of olive oil, and therefore, the presence of an Etruscan-derived cosmetic product. The discovery of this ancient cosmetic is an exciting find that sheds light on how the Etruscans cultivated their natural resources for beauty and health.
For the ancient Romans, the ideal body and face were a reflection of one’s health and wealth. They used various cosmetics to enhance their beauty. For example, they used kohl – a black powder made from lead sulfide – to line their eyes. They also used red ochre to add color to their cheeks and lips. In addition, they would use olive oil to moisturize their skin.
In ancient Rome, it was important for women to maintain a pale complexion as it symbolized their leisurely lifestyle. They were not forced to work outside in the sun as men did. Women who had darker complexions often used face whitening creams that contained ingredients similar to those used in whitewashing walls. While these creams were quite effective at lightening the skin, they came with a very unpleasant smell.
There were also many face masks that were made from a variety of things such as lentil, iris or rue. Ancient recipes for disguising scars and spots were popular as well. Honey was another common ingredient in the beauty regimen.
Slaves were employed to apply these cosmetics and perfumes. These slaves were known as cosmetae and had specialized skills in this area. It was common for them to dissolve the ingredients in their saliva before applying them to the client’s face. They were able to create facial shapes and even change the client’s eyebrow shape.
As experimental archaeology continues to grow, more and more details are being revealed about ancient cosmetics. These discoveries are helping to shed light on a world that was far removed from our own.
Whether it’s the eyeliner and eye shadow that was so popular with the likes of Tutankhamun or Nefertiti, or the kohl that darkened their eyebrows, the ancients were clearly obsessed with enhancing their appearance.
As pandemic restrictions ease, restaurants reopen, and mask mandates lift, it’s easy to get caught up in the fad of putting on makeup. However, before you run out and buy all the new products that are being advertised in the media, take a look at your current routine to see what’s working, what isn’t, and how you can make the best changes.
The ancient Greeks loved to make their faces look more natural. However, they didn’t stop at just powdering their face white – they would also use a variety of different colours to brighten their complexions and lips. Rouge for the cheeks, whitener to make the skin paler and black eyeliner were all popular cosmetics in ancient Greece. It’s also thought that the ancient Greeks used hair dye – of which there appear to have been two different types: one was meant to darken the hair and made from leeches left to rot in wine for 40 days, while the other, thankfully, was much less disgusting and consisted of a mixture of beech wood ash and goat fat.
It is believed that the Greeks also used a very dark eyebrow pigment to define their faces and give them a more “masculine” appearance. They also preferred a darker, more defined look with their eyes and used charcoal, soot and ashes to achieve this. This was all a bit of a trend at the time as it was thought to show intelligence and power! The unibrow was also quite fashionable in ancient times – women would paint the gap between their eyebrows to create the appearance of one thick brow. The beauty regime of the Greeks included scented perfumes – this was achieved by infusing oils with flower heads including roses, anemones, lotus flowers and marigolds.
They also slathered themselves in olive oil, which has been credited as being the first moisturizer for the skin. It is also thought that the Greeks smoked a form of tobacco called ‘kokos’, which they rubbed into their mouths to freshen up.
The ancient Greeks also drank a drink called ‘hesperide’, which is now known as lemon juice. In modern times, it is commonly added to cocktails as a flavouring and to help cleanse the system. The ancients also drank a brew of goats milk, honey and herbs that is referred to as a health tonic, which was also credited for having many healing properties. Despite all of this, the ancient Greeks were very distrustful of cosmetics, as can be seen in a famous forensic speech written by the Athenian orator Lysias for a man on trial for the murder of Eratosthenes.