From Cleopatra to Nefertiti, the women of ancient Egypt have inspired millennia of beauty rites. Our infatuation with eyeliner and the smoky eye has its roots in ancient Egyptians’ use of powdered galena, or kohl, applied to rim the eye. More than decorative value, eye makeup was thought to possess spiritual and protective properties, worn as a type of amulet to ward off the “evil eye.”
A timeless classic, the iconic red lip has ancient roots. The earliest known use of red lipstick was by the Sumerian Queen Shub-ad around 3,500 B.C. Her lipstick was made with white lead and crushed red rocks. In China, red lipstick made from beeswax, oils, and pigment was used from about the 21st century B.C., for beauty and indicating social status. Women typically applied face powder first, and then painted the lips to accentuate form or depict a desired shape such as cherries or flower petals. In ancient Egypt, red was a popular lipstick colour, but so were orange, magenta, and blue-black.
In second-millenium Europe, trends for a pretty flush ran the gamut from the perfectly pale complexion favoured by aristocrats, with just a dab of colour, to a milkmaid’s healthful rosy glow preferred by 17th-century blue bloods. Cheek hues of the time were concocted from a variety of ingredients: from light tints made from strawberries, to rouges derived from plants such as safflower, red sandalwood, or carmine.
The application of serums to brighten skin tone and achieve lustrous glow dates back millenia. Used in luxury cosmetics to this day, pearl powder was a key ingredient. Thought to have curative properties, it was used both externally and internally in ancient China. It is said to have been consumed by Empress Wu Zetian, famed for her beautiful complexion. Its popularity spread to Europe, where by the 19th century, it was used in beauty products to smooth and polish skin.
Oils derived from botanical sources were considered a precious commodity in ancient civilizations, used for medicinal, cosmetic, and religious purposes. Ancient Egyptians applied oils such as castor, sesame, fenugreek, and moringa to heal and protect the skin from sun damage. In Ancient Greece, olive oil, known for its antibacterial and anti-aging properties, was a body-care staple, used to moisturize, cleanse, and revitalize dry skin.
The use of skin-coloured cosmetics to cover the face has been around since antiquity, and gained popularity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when women would apply paint, egg whites, or a mixture of vinegar and lead to their faces to whiten, remove freckles, and create the fashionable pale look. Fortunately, today’s foundations no longer use toxic lead to achieve a flawless complexion.