I recently received an e-mail from a woman in the
Middle East, in which she described a concoction that she was
making using crushed pigments and cold cream to apply to her lips.
This was to bring some color back into her lips,
color that she said she had lost. She was looking for something
ready-made that she could buy so that she wouldn’t have to
continue to make her own blend.
The pigments that she had been using are not impossible
to find in the today’s world, though modern-day versions are more
synthetic in nature than those used by women in ancient times. In
the Arabic world, these crushed blends aren’t hard to come by
either, and are still used to line the eyes, as much for beauty as
for superstition. It is believed that “kohl” eyeliner will ward
off evil spirits. Cosmetic products used today in countries such
as Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria mirror those used in the ancient
empires of Egypt and Rome. This highlights the strong ties bonding
modern Middle Eastern culture to its ancient history.
Women in industrialized countries look for beauty in a
bottle. The thought of putting a product plucked directly from the
ground might seem repulsive or unclean to many. But in ancient
times, cosmetics were by nature “natural”. If a man or a woman
(cosmetics were used by both sexes in some ancient civilizations),
picked up a rock, and some color accidentally rubbed off on her
skin, leaving a red mark, then he or she understood that this rock
could be used to reproduce a healthy “flush” on the face. If ashes
from the cooking fire were black, then the soot could be mixed
with water and painted on as an eyeliner. It was through a process
of discovery that cosmetics were developed from naturally
So, what did women in ancient times use to create their
cosmetic palette? You will be suprised to learn that, though
naturally sourced, some of the ingredients used to create these
blends were highly toxic. Even more surprising is that some were
beneficial to the health of the wearer.
Ancient Egyptian Cosmetics:
For the ancient Egyptians, beauty was an extremely
important part of both mortal existence, and existence in the
afterlife. Beauty was believed to bring one closer to the Gods. It
was even thought that to be accepted into Heaven, the body needed
to be clean, scented, and made-up upon burial. Makeup was
treasured and ritualized, kept in special jars that were packed
into makeup boxes. These boxes were even taken to parties and
placed under one’s chair.
Here is a list of ingredients use by the ancient
Egyptians for creating the original mineral cosmetics:
Kohl: This was made of “galena”, or dark
gray ore of lead, (lead sulfide) mined in Upper Egypt, or at the
Red Sea Coast.
Lead carbonate: A white mineral, with a
Malachite: This is a green ore of copper
that was brought to the Nile Valley from the mountains of Sinai.
Red ochre: A naturally occurring red clay
Jasper or Lapis Lazuli: These minerals were
ground up finely and used for medicinal treatments of the eyes.
Goose fat: This was used as a binder when
making cosmetic pastes, such as blush.
Burnt Almonds: These were blended with
minerals to create eye and brow color.
What techniques did the Egyptians use to “make” their cosmetic
mineral makeup blends?
In a study conducted on cosmetic powders from the
Louvre museum in France, it was discovered that some of the
mineral cosmetics blends were ground for up to an hour. The
resultant powders had a fine, matte texture. The traditional
mortar and pestle was used to grind up the minerals. There were
also “shiny” cosmetic mineral makeup blends, which suggests that
the minerals were crushed, and then sifted to preserve the larger
crystal structures. This, it could be said, was the first example
of cosmetic shimmer powder, all the rage in today’s cosmetic
There was also some evidence from this study that the
Egyptian “cosmetic chemists”, so to speak, heated lead at varying
temperatures and lengths to produce a variety of colors. Galena
oxidizes upon heating, and it is supposed that this technique was
used to produce shades of yellow and blue, used around the eye
area. This technology is used in modern-day cosmetic mineral labs
to create ultramarine pigments from kaolin clay.
Previous to this study, it was believed that Egyptians
used green makeup made from malachite during the early part of the
Old Kingdom (2134-2040 B.C), before returning to plain black
eyeliner. It was not known that other colors were created using
How was makeup used by the Egyptians?
Both Egyptian men and women used black or green
eyeliner, lining both the upper and lower rims. A small stick was
dipped into a paste made of mineral blends mixed with water. The
black paste was also used to darken the eyebrows. Cheeks and lips
were reddened with a paste made of red ochre and a fatty
substance. Fingernails were stained with Henna.
The black liner was used not only for beauty, but to
deflect light, and as an antibacterial agent to ward of infection.
It has since been discovered that these mineral cosmetic blends
did indeed have anti-bacterial capabilities.
Ancient Greco- Roman Culture:
The word “cosmetic” comes from the Greek language: The
word cosmos, means order, or arrangement. Beauty and the
enhancement of it were very important to Roman women. (Men did pay
attention to their appearance, but did not wear makeup. Research
on artifacts discovered to be as much as 2,000 years old, point to
the proliferation of products designed to beautify the face and
hair. Ancient Roman civilization was very public in nature, and
one’s presentation in the political, social and sports arena was
of primary importance.
What did women of Ancient Rome use to make their cosmetics?
Ceruse: a white lead pigment, used to
lighten the face.
Sweat and dirt from sheep’s wool: This was
the equivalent to today’s lanolin. It served as a paste to which
pigment was added.
Bears’ fat: This was used as a wax base to
which pigment was added.
Soot from the fire: This was mixed with bear
or other animal fat and then used as black eyeliner.
Red ochre: A clay that added color to cheeks
and lips. It was often mixed with an animal fat to make a paste.
Wine: The dregs were used to color the lips.
Saffron: An expensive spice that is
yellow-orange in color, was ground and applied as eyeshadow.
Chalk: This was used to whiten the face.
What was the ideal of beauty in Roman culture?
The ideal of beauty was a white face, red lips, and
dark brows and lashes. A white face symbolized the upper class, as
it indicated that a woman was not bound to labor outside in the
sun, but instead, lead a life of leisure indoors. To accentuate
the paleness of the face, many toxic substances were used, the
worst being a form of lead. It was known, even thousands of years
ago, that lead caused skin conditions and other health problems,
but it continued to be used nonetheless.
Ancient Iranian, Mesopotamian, and Assyrian cultures
reflect similar formulas and uses for cosmetics. Trade routes were
established in ancient times, that allowed for various cultures to
take advantage of exclusive spices, oils, and extracts from
neighboring countries, so there were similarities in cosmetic, as
well as aromatherapy formulas.
It is interesting that women in the ancient world continued
to use ingredients that were known to have side affects
damaging to their health. Could it not be said that women of
the modern world have retained this attitude? With all of
the research available today on parabens, dyes, and
preservatives, many women continue to use potentially toxic
products in the name of beauty. Let’s hope that as the human
race expands that some lessons can be learned from history.
Title: Ancient Egyptian
Makeup Varied, Colorful, Author: Jennifer Viegas
Title: Cosmetics in Ancient
Egypt, Author: Prof. Hamed A. Ead
Ancient Greece Clothing,
Hairstyles, and Cosmetics
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