In a culture where looking good had religious implications, cosmetics were not only used to beautify the body but also protect it. A recent discovery of an over 2,000-year-old jar of face cream has shown that the desire to look good was universally shared across ancient cultures.
In Roman times, rouge for the cheeks, whitener to make the skin paler and even hair dye were popular cosmetics. They were often made from dangerous ingredients like arsenic.
The thick black eyeliner known as kohl was an essential cosmetic to ancient Egyptians of all social classes, from aristocrats like Cleopatra to lower-class prostitutes. It was used for beautification but also to signify devotion to the gods, an association that led many to view it as a kind of magic that provided protection from evil or illness.
The kohl we see smeared around the eyes of figures such as Nefertiti and Tutankhamun was made from ground minerals, with slate palettes often found in tombs of the Predynastic period onward. It was believed to reduce the sun’s glare, repel flies and help cure eye diseases like squinting, eye infections and blindness. It was also an effective deodorant, with kohl dust rubbing into the skin to kill bacteria and help clear the breath.
Today, we’re more likely to scoff at ancient wisdom such as this, but it seems that the ancient Egyptians may have been onto something. Despite the fact that lead-based makeup containing kohl can poison people, research on the chemical’s effect has shown that it is actually an antibacterial agent that helps fight off infection.
While we think of Cleopatra and Nefertiti as queens of Egypt, they were both also beauty icons. Elizabeth Taylor perfected the Cleopatra look in her 1963 film, while Rihanna wore saturated blue eyeshadow and kohl to pay homage to Nefertiti for Vogue Arabia in 2017. In their portrayals of the famous women, both actresses emphasized the seductive powers of the infamous queen’s signature eye-paint. And while that might be partly to blame for their iconic status, we can’t deny the seductive power of the thick black kohl on the face of these enigmatic goddesses.
Eyeliner, mascara and other cosmetics used to enhance the eyes have long been a part of the female beauty routine. While many people think that these products were conjured up by Estee Lauder or Elizabeth Arden, their origins actually lie in ancient Egypt.
Ancient Egyptian women rubbed scented oils and ointments on their bodies and faces, wore perfumed kohl, rouged lips, cheeks and nails, and used henna to dye hair. They adorned their necks with pendants and amulets, painted their faces with natural pigments from plants and minerals like green malachite and galena (lead sulfide).
The women of ancient Egypt were incredibly proud of their appearance. In fact, it was a symbol of beauty and power to have a full set of eye makeup and painted eyebrows. This was especially important for married women, as a beautiful appearance could help them ward off the temptations of their husbands or other men.
Cosmetics were very time-consuming to prepare. A large quantity of materials had to be ground and crushed into powder in order for the makeup to be ready for application. The makeup favored by queens such as Nefertiti was most likely made of powdered green malachite and galena mixed with animal fat or vegetable oil. In addition to a range of colored cosmetics, Egyptians also used black kohl for lining their eyelids and eyebrows. Slate palettes for grinding and blending the ingredients were frequently found in tombs.
If you’d like to create a similar look to the ones worn by ancient Egyptians, Character’s new Enchanting Egypt Eyeshadow Palette is just what you need. This collection features 16 highly-pigmented shadows that are a perfect blend of mattes and shimmers.
When it comes to beauty trends, lipstick is one of the oldest and most enduring. It’s also one of the first things that most of us think of when we think of makeup. In fact, it’s believed that the first make-up was applied to the lips 5000 years ago. The first records of lipstick come from ancient Mesopotamia, where women used a red paint made from crushed gemstones and white lead.
In the earliest times, lipstick was more about signaling status than anything else. It was the mark of a woman of nobility, who could afford to indulge in luxurious ingredients and techniques. But as the lipstick industry expanded, it became a sign of women’s increased freedom and power. It was during the 1920s that Helena Rubenstein invented the cupid’s bow lipstick applicator, and that French chemist Paul Baudercroux created Rouge Baiser – a lipstick that promised to be kiss-proof.
The ancient Egyptians also embraced the concept of cosmetics as a way to show off their wealth and social status. The wealthy would have their best perfumes and cosmetics kept in specially carved vessels called lekythoi. These were then taken with them to their tombs along with other valuables like wigs and jewelry.
As a result of such an important role in society, the ancients took great care in choosing their ingredients for cosmetics. Cleopatra, for instance, was famous for her red lipstick that she got from grinding ants and beetles. These highly toxic concoctions, mixed with dyes extracted from iodine and bromine mannite, were known to cause illness and even death – possibly where the phrase ‘kiss of death’ comes from.
Although the Church had a love/hate relationship with lip rouge, Queen Elizabeth I did not, and was known for her daring use of her favorite shade of pink. However, by the 16th century, the Church had swung back to treating lipstick as a sin and even outlawed it in some countries.
We’re all familiar with blush—the pinkish powder millions of women dab on the apples of their cheeks. It took a bit of a back seat to contouring in the 2010’s, but it’s currently having its moment again (according to Town and Country Magazine).
As it turns out, blush was popular in ancient times as well. The Tang dynasty was all about the appearance of natural beauty, so much that one of the empresses’ names is “Beautiful Empress Yang Guifei.” Her complexion was peachy and she was known for her dark hair and deep red cheeks (which could have been achieved using dried safflower, a common cosmetic ingredient). Red was a symbolic color, representing fire and life, and the Chinese used it to highlight their seductiveness.
The ancient Egyptians also loved their makeup, with men and women of all classes using various products to improve their looks, perfume themselves, and cure such challenges to vanity as baldness and grey hair. Written and pictorial records, as well as the surviving containers, jars, and utensils for making and applying these cosmetics, give evidence of how important looking good was to them.
Even in the Middle Ages, cosmetics were still used regularly (although they were starting to be associated with prostitution). For example, some writers moralized against blush because it resembled the flushed faces and bodies of tuberculosis patients—and at the time, it was a fatal disease.
The Romans were equally obsessed with their appearance, and the best indication of how common these practices were is in the countless jars, containers, and applicators that have been found in archaeological sites. These are usually adorned with intricate designs and, like the Egyptians, were often kept in beautifully carved caskets.
The Egyptians are famous for their love of cosmetics – finely carved palettes and other containers for making, keeping, and applying them have been found in tombs dating back to the Predynastic Period (c. 6000 – 3150 BCE). They used various shades of kohl (mehsdemet, a substance derived from lead) and black oxide for eyeliner, as well as rouge and blushed cheeks, using ingredients like burnt almonds, red ochre, vegetable oil, saffron, and dye extracted from lichen.
The Greeks also loved their beauty products, and the use of a wide variety of pigments was typical of their makeup techniques. Rouge was made from earth, and the Greeks were fond of red ochre. They also used dye extracted from lichen, as well as snail ash and grease from sheep’s wool for face makeup, a combination that was said to remove freckles. The excrement of lizards was sometimes applied to skin blemishes. The Romans, meanwhile, were quite averse to the idea of painting their faces, preferring a natural complexion. They did, however, have a fondness for scented oils and ointments to cleanse and soften the skin.
For centuries, both men and women valued their brows as an indicator of social status. Noblewomen of Japan, for example, shaved their eyebrows and pencilled them into place higher on the forehead, while commoners painted them thicker. Trends in facial hair continued to change over time. The painted, stylized Hollywood looks of the 1920s and ’30s were replaced by more natural-looking brows in the ’40s and ’50s, a look that reached its pinnacle with Brooke Shields in the ’80s. And it seems the cycle continues to this day. The brows of Kim Kardashian and Elizabeth Taylor show that a bold, dark look is once again fashionable.