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 occurring sources.
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 crystal structure.
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 trends.
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 heated ores.
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
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