Ancient Cosmetics

Ancient Cosmetics. 

The current cosmetic market is filled with countless types of makeup in a world of different color variations. Today we even have trained professional cosmetologists for a variety of jobs from personal makeup artists to help with particular events or occasions to specialized costume cosmetologists on a movie set. However, makeup is a very old idea. With the rise of ancient civilizations and of a distinct ruling class, the intention of trying to improve one’s individual looks to show off one’s power, wealth, or even accentuate a person’s natural attractiveness brought about the rise in the cosmetic industry. The use of red ochre as a type of decorative body paint can be traced back to early prehistory even. The only problem is that these founding cultures had not yet developed our modern synthetic blends for makeup that mostly hide imperfections and to highlight features that are considered to be beautiful on the face of the wearer. Without these early pioneers in cosmetics though, we would not have taken the steps to create our modern cosmetic market.


The ancient civilization of the Nile River Valley known as Egypt is one of the most notable records of early cosmetic use. Countless papyrus scrolls exist with some of  their cosmetic recipes, and archaeologists have even found some containers with the residue of these makeup mixes.  The natural tinted clay pigment known as red ochre was the favorite way for Egyptians to rouge their cheeks and lips. The most famous makeup of Egyptians is probably their eyeliner. Even modern makeup artists still enjoy using at least simple black eyeliner to accentuate the eyes of the wearer and sometimes pull a line of the black pigment outward from the corner of the eye to closely resemble paintings and decorated, painted busts that have been collected as artifacts from this ancient civilization. The original black pigment the Egyptians used was called kohl.  However, it was made from a combination of different materials rather than a single item from nature. By grinding together burnt almonds, ochre, oxidized copper, malachite, lead, and crushed antimony one creates a dark black powder that would then be applied with a small stick to give the effect of more almond shaped eyes when put along the edges of the upper and lower eyelids. This special combination was also thought to reduce eye infection and to help restore failing eyesight in addition to reducing the glare of the powerful Egyptian sun. Modern scientists have investigated these ancient claims to find out that the combination of minerals can prove to be helpful in small amounts as an eye antiseptic and easily help with glare as even football players know to apply black paint beneath their eyes to help reduce the whiteout effect of a brightly shining sun.

Before the ancient Greeks invaded Egypt to establish the ruling Ptolemys and adopted several of the ancient Egyptian cosmetic combinations they did have their own techniques for the beautification of the human form. Since the Greek goddess Aphrodite was considered to be the human personification of beauty and drawings and raised relief carvings of her were everywhere, the Greeks were pretty set in their standard of beauty. Normal women who were not Aphrodite used cosmetics to increase their public appeal. A mixture of honey  and olive oil was frequently applied to skin to give it a lighter color, act as a moisturizer, and give the skin a shimmering quality. Rather than using the Egyptian formula for kohl, Greeks would merely grind used charcoal and mix the powder with olive oil to create eye shadow instead of using eyeliner. Crushing iron oxide (rust) into a powder could be used as a rouge colored blush. Also, the ground iron oxide was frequently mixed with olive oil (the basic staple for Greek cosmetics and everyday life) and beeswax to make a paste for a type of lipstick or lip gloss to redden lips. However, cosmetic use was light in Greek  women as they preferred as natural a look as possible to create the ideal beauty. Depictions of Aphrodite never showed a woman slathered in makeup with artificial beauty enhancers; therefore, Greek women truly attempted to keep makeup as light as possible to live up to these expectations of beauty. They really preferred to use the skin mixtures to increase what nature had given them rather than cover things up with foundation or concealer like in modern times or even during the major reign of the Roman Empire when makeup was considered to be the height of beauty and expressions of wealth and status.

The ancient Romans were very close in their take on makeup as our modern world. The wealthy and affluent Romans were patrons to cosmetology as fashion was pretty much standard for the different levels of society. Therefore, to show their wealth and status, the Romans (particularly Roman women) were very much into extravagant makeup and elaborate hairstyles—even stylish wigs. Since Romans were prominent leaders in the slave trading of the ancient world, they felt as though a few select slaves could prove useful in helping to act as the cosmetologists of early history. These slaves were the ones who came up with new inventive styles for wearing makeup and arranging locks of hair. The higher quantities of makeup and the more expensive the mix of ingredients would be a sign of a woman’s status in society and the wealth of her family. Hygiene was of great importance to Romans. Each new Roman urban area would always have the building of a large bath, or bathhouse. Aristocratic and wealthy women would also apply moisturizing creams after their social bath in the changing rooms of the bath building. Roman women were also some of the first habitual makeup wearers and would have multiple layers of makeup to create a perfect or ideal look on the canvas of a woman’s face (whether they were attractive to begin with or not). The first layer of makeup would consist of a paste like foundation to completely cover the skin of the face and make it appear lighter in color. The average Roman woman who wore makeup would usually have a foundation of chalk, orris root, and a small amount of fat to make it thick enough to cover any facial imperfections. Really wealthy women would go all out though with a foundation of white lead paste as it was a better mixture to lighten the skin, cover flaws, and create an overall look. However, since the foundation was poisonous (even though the civilization did not know the dangers of lead based makeup) many rich women who wore it a lot (as in daily) would get sick or even die without a solidly known cause. Following in the way of the Egyptians, the Roman women would achieve red pigmentation in their lips and cheeks with red ochre. The makeup to beautify the eyes though was of special importance. Again, Romans took a leaf from the Egyptian cosmetic book to use kohl as both an eyeliner and even an eyebrow pencil since emphasis of the eyebrows were very important. Ground saffron and crushed malachite stone were used for colored eye shadows—saffron for red-oranges and malachite for green.

As you can see, cosmetics have come a long way over the years. Things you may want to consider…. What ingredients are in your current cosmetics?  Are they water, cream, oil or silicone based?  New ingredients are invented daily and technology and trends change to look, feel and texture of cosmetics. Everyone is different and enjoys a different feel & look to their cosmetics, & it is most important for you to get your  “perfect fit” in your cosmetic regime.  Drop by and see us and we will be happy to help you with your cosmetic needs at Penny Miller Cosmetology Academy.


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