Scientific analysis combined with written and artefactual evidence has revealed that ancient people applied a wide variety of substances to improve their appearance. Some of these were cosmetic in nature such as the kohl eye paint worn by such famous figures as Tutankhamun and Cleopatra; while others had more ambitious purposes like pastes that claimed to cure baldness or reverse grey hairs.
A beauty regimen was an essential part of life in ancient Egypt. The desert environment of the Nile Delta meant people were exposed to sand and dust, so it was important for people to keep their skin healthy. People washed their faces with soaps made of clay and ash, then used oils to hydrate the skin. According to the Christian Science Monitor, women also used ointments and makeup to beautify themselves.
Both men and women in ancient Egypt used perfumes, ointments to keep their skin soft, rouged their cheeks and lips and dyed their hair and nails. They even lined their eyes with black “kohl” or green malachite eyeshadow. This made them appear more beautiful to their gods, and looking one’s best was an important aspect of the religious life in ancient Egypt.
The Egyptians are credited with being the first appearance-oriented civilization, and their love of cosmetics can be seen in artifacts dating back to 4000 BCE. They were the first to use eyeliner, and men and women used scented oils and perfumes to keep their skin soft, mask body odor and protect themselves from insects.
Cosmetics were used on all levels of society, and people from the king to the peasant valued them. Evidence of this has been found in tombs where archaeologists have discovered ornate jars, palettes for crushing mineral pigments and stylized tools for applying makeup buried alongside elaborately prepared mummies.
A common ingredient in ancient makeup was lead. Egyptians made kohl by grinding antimony, burnt almonds and soot to create a dark, oily powder. This makeup was used to line the eyes, and this practice led to serious health problems for many people over time.
Although it’s often thought that ancient people didn’t value beauty, this couldn’t be further from the truth. They went to ridiculous lengths in an attempt to improve their appearance. One of the most disgusting examples is a dye that made hair darker by leaving leeches to rot in wine for forty days. Another, perhaps marginally less stomach-turning method, involved a mixture of beech wood ash and goat fat. It’s not clear whether it worked or not, but it illustrates how far humans would go to improve their looks.
During classical antiquity, Greeks were particularly obsessed with the appearance. They valued a harmonious and balanced look that reflected their culture. They also emphasized the importance of moderation and restraint in order to achieve beauty.
In addition to using perfumes to arouse lust, they powdered their faces with fucus, which was made from chalk and white lead. It’s unfortunate that they didn’t know that white lead is a dangerous substance that can cause disfigurement and other much more serious ailments.
They also painted their lips and cheeks with red-coloured pastes. Some of these ingredients included a mixture of ground ochre clays, saffron and olive oil. However, some people at the time moralized that makeup was only used by lower-class women or prostitutes to lure men.
Despite this, it was widely used by women of all classes. They even went as far as to use lizard excrement in their beauty products, which is probably why Cleopatra was so alluring. As with Egypt, the Greeks would keep their cosmetics and perfumes in containers called lekythoi that were adorned with themes related to burial and the next life. They would also leave their best cosmetics and perfumes with their dead.
In the age of TikTok and Instagram beauty treatments have never been more popular – but ancient Roman women were just as obsessed with their appearance. One of the earliest writers on cosmetics was Ovid who described various recipes for skin cream, makeup and perfume. The surviving pots, jars, applicators and combs, used to make and apply the cosmetics, show that they were quite lavish in their use of ingredients.
Both men and women wished for pale, flawless skin that would show wealth and chaste character. To achieve this they used salves and unguents, with ingredients like crocodile dung, mulberry juice and rose petals. Hair dyes, ointments and lotions were also widely used, and the follicles of the hair were often painted with an astringent mixture of wine dregs and rose petals.
The cosmetics included a range of coloured powders that were applied to the face, lips and eyes. Blonde hair was brightened with a tincture of goat’s milk, while the red was enhanced with a mix of beech ash and honey. The black dye was made from pulverised leaves of the Lawsonia inermis plant (henna).
For nails, barley flour was used for its gentle properties. The richer women, such as Poppaea Sabina who was wife to Emperor Nero (r. 54-68 CE), used asses milk for a more luxurious bathing ritual. She was said to have bathed daily, and had a team of slaves who were employed solely to help with her skincare routine.
In the age of TikTok and social media, it can be easy to forget that the world was once filled with beauty secrets. But, as experimental archaeology moves forwards it becomes more and more clear what was used in those beauty products, some of which have even been recreated to test their efficacy.
The ancient Chinese loved beauty products. Their love of perfumes, garments, and cosmetics was fueled by their desire to emulate fashionable beauty practices. They also wanted to look more beautiful than others, especially their emperors. In fact, the emperor’s appreciation of a concubine’s style became the basis for fashion trends that spread throughout China, including makeup.
The Chinese staining their nails with gum arabic, gelatin, beeswax, and egg whites dyed with orchids or roses was the precursor to today’s nail polish. They used different colors of paint for their fingernails to signify their social status: gold and silver were the choice of Chou dynasty royals, while later royals preferred black or red; lower classes were not permitted to wear color on their nails at all.
Chinese women applied white makeup on their faces for a fresh and healthy appearance. A powder made from motherwort, which resembles the color of peach blossoms, was particularly popular for covering spots and smoothing one’s skin. During the Six Dynasties, small forehead decorations called hua dian were made from various materials like dragonfly wings, gold foil, and red pigment.
Although cosmetic use is a worldwide phenomenon, its use in the past remains under-studied in archaeological sites. This is partly because of the secrecy and rhetoric surrounding cosmetics, which makes it difficult to determine their exact ingredients. However, a wide range of containers that held cosmetics have been found in ancient sites, from simple reed tubes to finely crafted glass vessels in various shapes and sizes. Moreover, archaeologists can also identify traces of the ingredients from chemical analysis of pottery sherds. For example, the earliest known lipstick dates back to about 840 BC, while the oldest eyeshadow has been dated to approximately 500 AD (Vanhaeren et al., 2013).
In Africa, skin beauty secrets were passed down from mothers to daughters for generations, cultivating a rich tradition of natural skincare rituals. These are now embraced by the ethical/values-based beauty movement in the form of locally-harvested ancestral beauty game-changers, such as Buchu (a multipurpose plant from the Khoi culture), Rooibos, Honeybush and Baobab. These are incorporated into cosmetics by local brands like SKOON. and Suki Suki Naturals, whose success stems from their use of these timeless ingredients.
Cosmetic body adornment is a staple in African culture, as evidenced by the well-documented kohl eye paints and lipstick of ancient Egyptians and the red ochre used by the Northern Namibian Himba tribes and Sudanese. From a practical standpoint, these cosmetics offered protection from the sun and served as an indication of status in society. However, from an aesthetic perspective, adornment has always been about expression and identity, not just function.
In antiquity, a wide variety of pigments were used by various ancient civilizations, but the most common ingredient was lead carbonates (lead white). The earliest-known example of lead white is found on the bust of Nefertiti (ca. 340–1 320 BCE). Radiocarbon measurements reveal that the lead carbonate powders exhibited an older age than expected, which suggests that they were made from a natural association of galena and cerussite. They also have a signature of being synthetic, suggesting that they were produced using some sort of modern chemical process. In addition, the dates of these samples are consistent with the pharaonic ages recorded for the other three cosmetics, meaning that all of them were likely produced at about the same time.