Ancient Greeks used dangerous cosmetics in their eternal search for beauty


A Pyxis, or circular box for containing makeup, 470-460 BC. Attica. The ship shows the marriage of Thetis and Peleus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

In today’s modern world, we are privileged to take it for granted that the ingredients in our cosmetics are safe. However, it is only recently that cosmetics companies have taken responsibility for making sure they don’t do any harm.

In the ancient world, indeed, lead was one of the most widely used substances in makeup. Known today to cause severe developmental delays, infertility and dementia, it was used in paste form, much like today’s foundation, to whiten skin tone and rejuvenate women.

It is believed that the Greeks were the first to use such ingredients in their makeup, despite a general distaste for the use of cosmetics (at least according to the writers of the time, who were of course exclusively male). Some Greeks of the time moralized that make-up was only used as a trick, by lower-class women or prostitutes, in order to attract men.

However, in reality, it is believed that women of all social classes, single or married, actually used cosmetics of all kinds, both to lighten the skin and to enhance their features.

Fresco of a woman, possibly Cleopatra, ancient Roman city
Fresco of a woman, possibly Cleopatra. Ancient Roman fresco in the third Pompeian style, from the Maison du Orchard in Pompeii, Italy, mid-1st century AD. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

The Greek word “kosmetika” is of course the root of the English word “cosmetics”. However, in its ancient form, the word referred to all preparations that protected the hair, face and teeth. The term for beautifying makeup was “to kommotikon”.

The ancient Romans, who adopted so much from Greece, adopted the practice of using both white and red lead in facial makeup and, with few exceptions, the extraordinarily pale look it gave. continued to be popular even in the 18th century.

However, the use of these lead-based pigments actually caused disfigurement – along with other much more serious illnesses that certainly occurred around this time as well, although they were never linked to lead. at that time.

Kevin Jones, of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising Museum in New York, explained in an NBC News report that “It will eat away at the skin, causing all kinds of scars. And the way they covered that up was to apply thicker amounts of makeup, which would then make the situation worse. “

Perhaps in the most disturbing visual of all, it was recorded in ancient times that lizard droppings, of all things, were used to fight wrinkles.

However, as much as we can laugh at ancient wisdom like that, the modern cosmetic industry still uses age-old drugs such as snail mucin, or the droppings they drag behind when they move around. , which has made an appearance in recent years as a popular skin care ingredient.

The publication Women’s health praised its “moisturizing properties,” saying skin can be “smoother, more hydrated and glowing with consistent use of snail mucin.”

Cleopatra – Queen of the Nile, Cosmetic Expert

Cleopatra, the Queen of the Nile, who was the last descendant of the Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty, was known not only for her power as ruler of Egypt, but also for her seductive powers over men – and she even surprisingly wrote her own book on beauty products.

As evidenced by the myriad representations of other women in Egyptian art, she undoubtedly used kohl, a combination of oils and metallic powders – usually lead, antimony, manganese, or copper – as an eyeliner, as well as a range of other cosmetic products including eye shadow and blush. .

Ancient Greek cosmetics
Makeup jar in the shape of a swan, made from a hippopotamus tusk. Egypt, Bronze Age. Hechy Museum, Haifa, Israel. Credit: Golf Bravo / Wikimedia Commons /CC BY 3.0

However, we now know, according to dermatologist Dr Joel Schlessinger, that the use of these substances around the eyes results in “irritability, insomnia and mental decrease,” according to the recent NBC News report.

Greek women also used more natural ingredients, such as the red ocher of the earth and the dye extracted from the lichen, for the red, and the ash and soot for the color of the eyebrows. Saffron, derived from the pistils of the crocus flower, was used as a red to color the cheeks.

Fresco “The Saffron Gatherers” from Akrotiri, Santorini. Minoan civilization. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

The most widely used eyeliner in ancient times, however, was derived from the element antimony, which according to the newspaper Nature is “toxic by inhalation and ingestion” and is also carcinogenic.

Ocher, the natural reddish pigment of the earth, which occurs all over the world, can be seen in the portraits of Queen Nefertari, who lived in 1255 BC, which decorate the walls of her tomb. The cosmetics used by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians were not only for beautifying the face, but were also used for their more practical value.

Since ancient times, skin moisturizers have been made from animal fats, including sheep wool lanolin and vegetable oils. Wood ash was combined with fats to make soap in a process that continues almost unchanged to this day, when the lye, which is derived from wood ash, is combined with olive or other oils. and fats to make our modern soaps.

Odyssey Perfumes

Historians have noted that the Greeks were known to have made perfume as early as the Middle Bronze Age, from the 14th to the 13th century BC. Such toiletries were first mentioned in the works of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey, written in the 8th century BC.

To make perfumes, plants, flowers, spices, and scented woods, including myrrh, rose, and cinnamon, would be infused in oils. As oil was used as a base, most perfumes came in the form of a thick paste. This required the use of a special spoon-shaped tool to extract it from its containers.

Surprisingly, such tools have even been excavated in England, as part of a Roman settlement there. A bar brooch found there had several miniaturized bronze tools hanging from it – one in the shape of a teaspoon, which was most likely used with solid scent.

In ancient times, perfumes were used for the sheer pleasure they provided, as well as to seduce; Due to their labor-intensive manufacture, they were also a status symbol and were used in rituals (especially in burials).

Relief of a carved funerary lekythos in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, showing Hermes leading the deceased, Myrrhine, to Hades
Relief of a carved funerary lekythos in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, showing Hermes leading the deceased, Myrrhine, to Hades. vs. 430-420 BC Credit: Marsyas / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.5

“Cleopatra” perfume

Egyptian priests were known to anoint statues of gods with scented oils – and even apply makeup as part of their religious rituals.

Much like in Egypt, the ancient Greeks often left their best cosmetics and perfumes in graves to accompany their dead. Lekythoi, the graceful vessels used to store fine oils and perfumes, were often decorated with themes related to burial and the journey to the next life, when used for this purpose.

Pyxes, or decorated boxes, are also said to be left with bodies in their resting places, along with containers called alabastros, used for creams and ointments in the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations.

Curiously, in the 1970s, the Italian chemist Giuseppe Donato recreated perfumes from ancient texts; some have even been commercially produced, notably the perfume “Cleopatra” by Donato and Seefried, based on the one worn by the Egyptian queen.

However, just like in sausages, where it’s usually best not to know how they’re made, hair dye in ancient times was full of heartbreaking ingredients.

The dyes, which are said to have been used by both sexes, could be used to make the hair darker or lighter. The hair darker dye was made by leaving leeches to rot in the wine for forty days.

The other, perhaps slightly less disgusting, method involved a mixture of beechwood ash and goat fat to lighten the hair.

It is also recorded that in order to obtain bright white teeth, the ancient Greeks used ashes to clean them.

Maybe all of these things were worth it, maybe not – but it just shows how far human beings could go – and still do – to improve their appearance.


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