Scientific research and art have revealed that our ancient ancestors took great care to look their best. Cleanliness and appearance were important to them because it was thought to purify both body and soul.
Surviving cosmetic containers from their time range from simple reed tubes to finely crafted vessels made of glass (fish shaped was popular), faience, and stone. They also used a variety of brushes to apply their products.
Like other ancient cultures, the Egyptians placed great importance on beauty rituals and appearance. This included bathing as a form of skincare, and scented oils that were used to moisturize the skin. It also involved the use of makeup, including eyeliner, which was often made from lead sulfide and ash. Sadly, this eventually led to serious health issues for many people who wore it regularly.
Another form of cosmetics that was widely used was henna, a dye made from the leaves of the heena plant. It was typically applied as a design on the hands and feet of both men and women, as a sign of wealth and status. It was also thought that it boosted fertility, so many women would paint their nails with it in order to ensure that they had children.
Other types of cosmetics that were frequently used included scented oils and perfumes, as well as creams and lotions made from animal fats. The ancients believed that good scents were godly, so they created perfumes based on ingredients like sandalwood, lilies, and frankincense. They also made scented hair products by adding flowers to a mixture of oil and animal fat.
The Egyptians were meticulous in their efforts to look their best, even after death. They would anoint statues with scented oils and apply make-up to them for religious ceremonies. Various written and pictorial records, combined with remains of the products themselves, show that the ancients put a lot of time and effort into their beauty routines.
The ancients loved their make-up, but it was not without its risks. One of the most famous examples of this was the use of kohl as eyeliner. This was a mix of lead sulfide, ash, and soot. The frequent use of this product ultimately caused many people to suffer from serious health problems, which is why it is not recommended to wear it today. A safer option is a natural alternative, such as the products from Ancient Cosmetics. This Black-owned company is a small business that was started by a group of millennials who wanted to create healthy beauty products for their own communities. Their products have been endorsed by celebrities and social media influencers like Jayda Wayda, Queen Naija, and more.
Getting your beauty on in ancient times was no walk in the park – before safe and regulated products were available, people used all sorts of strange (and sometimes gross) ingredients. There is a wealth of written and pictorial evidence of men and women using powders, creams, lotions, perfumes, and preparations to improve or restore their looks. Both men and women used hair dyes (a boy’s urine was thought to work wonders), eyeliners, eyebrow stains and moisturizers. There were also face creams that whitened the skin and even lipstick made from crushed insects, but the most common ancient cosmetic ingredient was lead.
The earliest known use of lead in makeup was for whitening foundation and blush. The Romans favored pale faces and used cerussa, which was a form of lead carbonate, for makeup. Other common makeup ingredients included gilded tin, copper and mercury. Mercury was particularly popular for the lips because of its ability to make the lips appear rosy. The ancients believed that a woman with bright eyes, white teeth and beautiful hands was a sign of status.
In 330 AD, the Byzantine Empire was founded on the eastern side of the Roman empire and flourished for a thousand years until it was finally defeated by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1453 AD. The Byzantines were a remarkably sophisticated civilization, renowned for their writing, folk art and architecture.
Under the emperor Justinian I, Byzantium reached its zenith of power. He expanded the empire, built the magnificent Hagia Sophia church and reformed Roman law that would influence modern European and international law. However, his war campaigns put a huge strain on the imperial treasury and the Byzantines were soon in debt. His successors would have to impose taxes to support these campaigns.
A rich culture of monasticism developed under the Byzantines. Its monks were involved in the administration of many of the state’s institutions including orphanages, schools and hospitals. They also patronized the arts and a large body of Byzantine art has survived, including beautifully illuminated manuscripts. Byzantine art also helped to shape the development of western Christian art, notably iconography and illumination.
In the Roman world, cosmetics were used to enhance appearance and also as a sign of wealth and status. Women of all classes carried on the make-up traditions of their Greek predecessors, as can be seen in art and artefacts. But, while some of their writings suggest they were snobby about the use of cosmetics (one writer referred to as Poppaea ‘a woman who bathes every day with her 500 asses’), the evidence suggests that the ancients were not so snobbish after all.
In fact, many of their beauty routines seem rather similar to our own. A mix of natural and manufactured ingredients – including the use of a variety of animal products and excrement – kept blemishes, wrinkles and grey hairs at bay. This was particularly the case for both men and women who wanted to look good to impress.
For example, Ovid (43 BCE – 17 CE) writes about one face cream that contains 40% animal fat and 40% starch (probably derived from boiling wheat or roots). But this particular recipe also includes powdered narcissus bulbs, ground antlers, tin oxide and a bird’s nest – which would have provided the colouring. It was also possible to add a bit of white lead shavings, although we know they were poisonous, so this may have been a mistake.
The Romans sourced their cosmetics from far and wide, including Germany, Gaul (today’s France) and China. The rich were able to afford more exotic ingredients like Tyrian vermillion, crocodile dung and cinnabar (mercury). And although Roman writers tended to view cosmetics as the preoccupation of prostitutes and unfaithful wives trying to catch a husband, it seems that all levels of society were interested in making themselves appear attractive.
And just as we’ve done with modern day technology, archaeologists have been able to find pots, bottles and combs that held these ancient cosmetics. As the field of experimental archaeology grows, so does our knowledge of what went into ancient beauty preparations. But, while we can now reconstruct some of the recipes, it is the ancients’ motivation and approach to beauty that is truly fascinating.
The Greeks valued beauty, too, and many natural cosmetic suggestions were popular among women. They favored pale complexions that they maintained by using white lead (later replaced by chalk powder due to its high toxic effects). Crushed mulberries and pomegranates were used for lip and cheek stains, clay for eye makeup, and charcoal for dark eyebrows (known as unibrows) were a favorite. The Greeks also believed that connected eyebrows were a sign of beauty, and they would draw them on with kohl to make them appear linked or even create artificial unibrows.
Unlike the Egyptians who favored a pristine appearance, the Greeks were not afraid of using makeup to enhance their features. While some Greek writers began to moralise the use of cosmetics and claim that they were tricks that only lower-class women or prostitutes used, this did not stop women from all social classes or single or married ladies from practicing their art.
They scented themselves by applying perfumes to their necks and arms after bathing, but they also slathered their skin with olive oil, which promotes clear complexions, deep moisturization, and even helps to lighten skin. They also infused their oils with fragrant flowers to create a lovely scent. Today, we have learned a lot from the ancient Greeks, especially about the benefits of olive oil, and this is why it is still a staple in many of our modern natural beauty products.
Another ancient Greek trend that we have seen come back around is the use of a dark mineral called galena. It is similar to the lead-based eyeliner used by Cleopatra, and studies have shown that it has antimicrobial properties and can protect against bacterial infections. In fact, a study published in Science Magazine found that when the ancient Greek ingredient was applied to keratinocytes, it released nitric oxide, which is known to activate cells that fight infections.
In our fast-paced world where beauty is everything, it is important to take time to nourish your body and soul with natural ingredients. Luckily, there are companies like Ancient Cosmetics that are focused on bringing back some of the beautiful traditions of our past by providing high-quality products made with the best all-natural ingredients.