Civilizations have long valued beauty. Products used for cosmetic purposes throughout history can provide clues about a culture’s practical concerns, such as protection from the sun or social conventions of beauty.
For example, Egyptians favored rouge made from red ochre and Cleopatra used a mixture of crushed beetles and ants for her famous red lips. Lead was a common ingredient in ancient cosmetics such as kohl and cerussa, which whitening foundation.
In ancient times, getting your glam on was far more involved than popping open a tube of eyeliner or swiping on some lipstick. Before safe and regulated cosmetics existed, ancient people had to get creative with the ingredients they had at hand. This resulted in some truly strange cosmetics, including snail ash to remove freckles and lizard excrement rubbed into skin blemishes.
Of all the ancient civilizations, Egypt seemed to take beauty rituals most seriously. As evidenced by artifacts found in tombs and burials, makeup was not only used to adorn the body for everyday use but also to honor gods and goddesses. And so, it was not uncommon to see faces adorned with elaborate eye makeup, including the iconic kohl-ringed look we still love today.
The ancient Egyptians ground minerals like green malachite and black galena to make kohl, a thick black ointment that was worn around the eyes for both beautification and religious purposes. It was believed that kohl had immunological properties that supported eye health, as well as minimising glare from the sun.
Aside from kohl, Egyptians also wore eye shadows – which was probably applied with a wet brush or fingers – and lip color that could be anything from bright red ochre to purple dye extracted from a type of lichen. They were also known to use a variety of powders for face and body including soot, antimony, and saffron.
In Roman times, makeup shifted from being heavily decorative to one that was intended to enhance the natural features of a woman’s face. The earliest records show women wearing blush and light eyeshadow that was created by mixing a mixture of plants or fruits with lead-based colors and mercury (which is now considered toxic).
While it may seem that ancient Egyptians tended to emphasize the eyes, they did not neglect other areas of the face. Many women wore a light touch of pigment to the cheeks or lips that would have been made using the same formula as their eye shadow – with plants, spices, and perhaps even lead-based mercury. Interestingly, like their Egyptian counterparts, Greek women kept their best cosmetics in lekythoi – the slim, one-handled jugs that were dedicated to the dead for carrying on into their next lives.
The use of cosmetics is widespread across cultures, even if it may be more for show than practical purposes. Before safe and regulated products were available, ancient civilizations had to come up with their own beauty products from whatever ingredients were at hand. This included some pretty strange (and sometimes downright gross) stuff.
During the Roman Empire, men and women alike slathered themselves with paint, powders and oils to enhance their looks. The most obvious examples are found in the art of the time, but there’s also a lot of evidence from archaeological excavations. These include spiky glass bottles and pottery jars used to store perfumes, ointments and unguents, as well as the tools needed to apply them.
In ancient Greece, both men and women wore makeup to a certain extent, although the only places that seem to have been made bolder were eyebrows, which could be darkened with olive oil, or painted with whitener to make skin appear paler. Rouge for the cheeks was another common cosmetic, while kohl eyeliner was applied around the eyes. Hair dye was used too, with both dark and light options available. The darker dyes were usually made from leeches that had been left to rot in wine for 40 days, while the lighter one was a mixture of beechwood ash and goat fat.
When it comes to ancient Egyptians, beauty and cleanliness had strong religious associations, which meant that both men and women wore a great deal of makeup. It’s thought that they used a variety of cosmetics, including eyeliner and lipstick which were both coloured with red ochre, as well as a powder to brighten the face and a black paste known as kohl made from soot, greasy matter and copper or lead sulfide. Slate palettes, jars and wig boxes containing all kinds of cosmetics were often buried alongside the dead, and some tombs even contain inscriptions that refer to specific ingredients.
In ancient Egypt, the same importance was placed on appearance as in other parts of the world at the time. This is clear from the many written records as well as the archaeological finds that have been uncovered in tombs, with jars of unguents and ointments, spiky bottles of perfumes and ointments and the tools used to apply them all being discovered along with the mummies themselves.
Hair color has been a consistent beauty trend since ancient times, but the methods and choices have changed quite a bit over the years. From ashes to leaches to lead, many different ways of lightening or darkening hair have been used in an effort to create the most flattering appearance.
The ancient Egyptians were big into cosmetics, particularly skin care and body paints. Both men and women rubbed on scented oils and ointments to clean and soften the skin, used dyes to cover grays (henna was one of their go-tos) and lipsticks to brighten lips. They also wore jewelry made from gilded and enameled metals, carved wood and stones. They even anointed statues of gods with scented oils as part of religious rituals.
If you look at a museum exhibit on ancient Egypt, you might be surprised to see that the ancients were able to achieve such amazing technological advances. But you might be equally surprised to find that they also favored using a variety of icky hair coloring methods, such as the application of henna and a formula containing a mixture of ashes from burned plants and nuts. During the Roman Empire, many prostitutes had to wear blonde hair in order to be licensed and pay taxes. They usually wore wigs, but high-class Roman women often used a plant-based dye to lighten their natural blonde hues and signal their profession.
Other cultures like the Gaul and Saxons were known to dye their hair in a wide range of colors to display their rank or to scare off the enemy on the battlefield. And of course, the Greeks loved their golden and red-gold tones associated with Aphrodite, a goddess of love and fertility.
As for modern-day hair coloring, it was actually a discovery made by accident in 1862 when English professor William Henry Perkin was trying to develop a cure for malaria and ended up creating the first synthetic dye. Chemistry professor August Wilhelm von Hoffman later enhanced Perkin’s work to create para-phenylenediamine, or PPD, the primary ingredient in most permanent hair dyes today.
Body oils were a major part of ancient cosmetics. Men and women used scented oils and ointments to clean their skin, mask body odors and add moisture to it. They also rouged their lips and cheeks, stained their nails with henna, and lined their eyes and eyebrows heavily with kohl, which was made from crushed antimony, burnt almonds, lead, oxidized copper, ash, malachite or chrysocolla, a blue-green copper ore. Using these substances gave the wearers a tanned, glowing look and protected them from harmful sun rays and the elements.
The Egyptians were among the first civilizations to use cosmetics. They began using them around 10,000 BCE. Their makeup was usually made from natural ingredients and was accompanied by elaborate, stylized tools, including a variety of brushes, sponges and bottles. These containers varied, from a simple reed tube to finely crafted vessels of glass in all shapes and sizes. The Egyptians believed that using the right cosmetics was a way to show social status, and their beauty rituals often included religious significance.
Like the Egyptians, the Greeks favored a natural approach to beauty and skincare. Their natural ingredients emphasized healing and rejuvenation, which is why they were among the earliest users of face masks and moisturizers. One of the most important natural ingredients they used for a radiant glow was olive oil. This oil was a key component of their beauty regimens and even today, many facial products contain the same olive oil.
Another essential ingredient in the ancient beauty world was oat milk. This natural treatment for eczema was used by the ancients to moisturize and soothe the skin, and it still has this power today. A new study found that applying oat milk to the skin reduces friction, which can cause a flare-up of eczema symptoms. The oat milk is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for the skin. It’s available in many skincare products, such as Lush’s Dream Cream for Eczema.