The Origins of Cosmetics

March 18, 2016

Cosmetics may be defined as “substances that you put on your face or body that are intended to improve your appearance”. The desire to improve one’s appearance is something that seems to be inherently human, and can be done in a number of ways.

It is known today, for instance, that during Pre-historic times, ornaments such as necklaces and bracelets were used, as they have been found as grave goods in burials from that period.

Another way of improving oneself is of course the application of cosmetics. This article will focus primarily on ancient Egypt, where cosmetics are thought to have been first used. Nevertheless, the use of cosmetics in other parts of the ancient world will also be looked at briefly.

Oils to Protect and Perfume

The earliest known evidence for the use of cosmetics by human beings is believed to come from the ancient Egyptian civilization. Thus, it has commonly been speculated that cosmetics were first used in ancient Egypt (others have suggested that red ochre is evidence that the use of cosmetics began much earlier, i.e. during the African Middle Stone Age).

Some sources say that the earliest evidence available for the application of cosmetics by the ancient Egyptians comes from 10000 BC (around the Neolithic period). During this period, it is asserted, the healing abilities of scented oil was discovered.

These oils were used by the ancient Egyptians “to clean and soften their skin and mask body odor”, as well as for protection against the hot air. Vessels used for storing the oils have indeed been found, though the best known of these are perhaps from the Pharaonic period.

Kohl Painted Eyes

The ancient Egyptians were also famous for their use of kohl, which was made of “a mixture of metal, lead, copper, ash and burnt almonds”. This substance was applied to the eyes using a small stick. Kohl was usually applied onto both the upper and lower eyelids. Additionally, a line extending from the corner of eye to the side of the face was also drawn with kohl.

In addition to its perceived magical protective powers, kohl also helped the ancient Egyptians to deflect the harsh desert sun. Furthermore, recent scientific research has shown that the kohl killed off harmful bacteria, thus protecting the ancient Egyptians from infectious eye diseases. It should be pointed out, however, that the lead in the kohl might have been harmful to the body.

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