Ancient Skincare and Cosmetics

Science, archaeology, and literature have revealed that our ancient ancestors used many different substances to address various skin-care needs and look their best. Cosmetics have been used in daily life, in religious rituals, and in burial rites. While modern people can buy a range of beauty products, the origins of these lotions, powders, and perfumes can be found in ancient times.

Ancient Egypt

Artifacts dating back to the Predynastic Period have proven that the ancient Egyptians were pioneers in the use of cosmetics. Striving to look one’s best was a way to honor the gods and goddesses, and people wearing makeup can plainly be seen on the walls of ancient tombs. Cleanliness and appearance were high priorities and were considered ways to purify the body and the soul. Egyptian beauty products could be either simple or quite complex. Ingredients such as olive oil and clay were used for soap. Honey and milk from goats and donkeys were used for face masks and baths. Salt from the Dead Sea was used for exfoliating the skin.

The iconic eyeliner and eye shadow worn by Tutankhamun, Nefertiti, Nefertari, and Cleopatra were made by grinding minerals like green malachite and black galena into powder. Certain minerals would catch the sun’s rays and create an attractive, glittery shine. The substance known as kohl had other uses as well: It was used to give the eyes some protection from the harsh sun and to deter insects from the eyes. Another common makeup ingredient was red ochre, an ancient pigment that was combined with animal fat or vegetable oil and used for blushing the cheeks, painting the nails, and marking bodies and grave sites. The same goes for natron and ash, which were also used to cleanse the skin and in mummification.

Fragrances were popular in ancient Egypt as well; in fact, there are some recipes for scented oils inscribed in hieroglyphics on ancient Egyptian temple walls. Obtained from the resin of the boswellia tree, frankincense was used for many things, including perfume, disguising bad breath, enriching the skin and hair, massaging sore muscles, and even embalming the dead. Another essence produced from the sap of a tree was myrrh, noted for its earthy scent. These two products became important trading commodities across civilizations. People would travel far and wide to distribute and trade these coveted products. While these substances themselves largely did not survive into the present day, a variety of containers that once held cosmetics have been unearthed and are on display in museums around the world, from a simple reed tube to finely crafted vessels made from colored glass in an array of shapes and sizes.

Ancient Greece

Much like the Egyptians, the Greeks believed that cosmetics and skin care were essential to everyday life as well as death. The word “cosmetic” is actually derived from a Greek word, “kosmetikos.” Ancient Greek women used many of the same ingredients the Egyptians used for their skin care, such as goat milk, honey, animal fats, and vegetable oils.

The olive tree is said to have originated in Greece and was considered to be sacred. Olive oil was widely used to protect the skin from environmental stressors, prevent aging, and promote a clear complexion. It also helped lighten the appearance of the skin. Light skin was very popular, and people went to great lengths to achieve this look. White lead was applied to their faces, but over time, they discovered that it might be making them ill, so they switched to using chalk powder. Another desired look was to redden the lips and cheeks. Crushed mulberries and red iron were used to create red coloring. Dark eye shadows, created using mixtures of clay and charcoal, were also very popular. In fact, dark and thick eyebrows were considered attractive. Although some women go through the painful process of plucking their eyebrows today, the women of ancient Greece actually favored a unibrow.

Ancient China

The ancient Chinese created a beauty product that’s popular today: nail polish. The women of ancient China used a combination of gum arabic, gelatin, beeswax, and egg whites dyed with orchids or roses to stain their nails. The Zhou dynasty royals gave themselves gold and silver nails using metallic dust, while royals in later eras preferred black or red. The lower classes were not allowed to wear color on their nails at all.

Flowers were also popular in ancient China. Legend said that Princess Shouyang, daughter of Emperor Wu of Liu Song, was wandering the gardens and rested under the eaves of Hanzhang Palace near the plum trees. A single plum blossom floated down onto her face and left a floral imprint on her forehead. The court ladies were so impressed that they started decorating their own foreheads with a delicate plum blossom design, too.

Around the World

Cosmetic use has been apparent in nearly every part of our world’s history. Milk, honey, oils, berries, and flowers have been common ingredients across civilizations, but some harmful substances have been used in beauty routines as well. In England, they once used things like mercury and vinegar to remove blemishes. This proved to be effective, but being that they are corrosive substances, they left scars and undesirable discoloration. Homemade remedies were used to treat these problems. Irritated and dry skin was treated with milk, oatmeal, herbs, aloe, and cucumber. To treat under-eye puffiness, women would apply bread soaked in rosewater. Other healing remedies included sea salt, honey, chamomile, and clay.

In the Middle East, wearing cosmetics was not prohibited by Islam, but the cosmetics themselves needed to be made of substances that did not harm the body. Abu Qasim Khalaf Ibn Abbas Al-Zahrawi, an ancient Arabic physician, surgeon, and chemist, included a chapter on cosmetics in his medical encyclopedia indicating that cosmetics were the “medicine of beauty.” It’s said that Middle Easterners used perfumes, scented aromatics, and incense sticks rolled and pressed into special molds, which were perhaps the earliest ideas of present-day solid deodorants.

In Rome, women wore makeup as well. Perfumes were also widely used, not only on their own or in baths but even in their wines. Common perfume ingredients included cinnamon, date palm, quince, basil, wormwood, and fragrant flowers.

In Japan, the geisha and maiko wore lipstick and eye makeup made of crushed safflower petals. Sticks of bintsuke wax (also used by sumo wrestlers as hair wax) were used as a makeup base. Rice powder and sometimes bird droppings were used to color the face. A rouge was applied to contour the eye socket and to define the nose. Black paint called ohaguro colored the teeth for the erikae ceremony, in which a maiko graduated and became a geisha.