Health And Beauty: A History Of Cosmetics From Cleopatra to Marie Antoinette


When Cleopatra set sail to greet Marc Antony’s fleet, she did so with heavily perfumed sails. Sailors reported that the entire sea smelled of incense to announce her arrival, both in attempt to seduce the Roman warlord and as a statement of her identity. The ancient Egyptians were famous for their lavish use of cosmetics and perfume and Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt and taste-maker of the Mediterranean, was doubly so. The ambitious leader was rarely scene in public without a face made up of blush, lipstick, multicolored eyeshadow, darkened eyebrows and flattened eyelashes.


Cosmetics are an essential component of ever-changing beauty standards, but have been in vogue for thousands of years. These beauty standards have also led to serious mental physical and health issues for women. In today’s hyper-consumer society this effect is multiplied by a constant barrage of high-def photoshopped ads featuring radiant and flawless models. The endless parade of cosmetics products is complicit.

So is it fair to call cosmetics the industry of insecurity? Just as Cleopatra used beauty products to further her own political objectives, Historian Kathy Piess writes that “not only tools of deception and illusion, these little jars tell a rich history of women’s ambitions, pleasure, and community.” After all, makeup empowers the human drive for creativity, self-expression, and the appreciation of aesthetics.

So what’s the deal? In our investigation of beauty standards, body image, and self-love, we investigate the history of cosmetics to determine their impact on health. In the first of a two part series, we explore the health consequences and history of cosmetics from ancient Egypt to the French Revolution. 

Contour Like An Egyptian

Religious, aesthetic, and health concerns influenced the decision to wear makeup in ancient Egypt. When the Egyptians applied makeup, they did so liberally. The iconic Egyptian eyeliner we know from hieroglyphs and Hollywood actually had health benefits. It cast off the bright desert sun and warded off common eye diseases.

As scientist Philippe Water found, “In stimulating non-specific immunological defences, one may argue that these lead compounds were deliberately manufactured and used in ancient Egyptian formulations to prevent and treat eye illnesses by promoting the action of immune cells.”

Unfortunately, the makeup had some insidious side effects. Green malachite, like the kind Cleopatra wore on her lower eyelids, came from copper. Black kohl was lead-based. Egyptian aristocrats mixed these poisonous chemicals with duck fat and applied the fatty globs to their face with a flat blush.

roman women


Deadly fat-lead mixtures also adorned Roman faces across the sea. But while both Egyptian men and women put on a face each day at court, cosmetics were (supposedly) the domain of women in the Western countries. Ovid, a Roman poet and the self-proclaimed most fashionable man in the Empire, commented that, while perfectly acceptable, women’s makeup was supposed to be understated and naturalistic, the little jars hidden from the view of guests.

Perfumes, on the other hand, were used by Greeks and Romans to cleanse and purify the environment. More austere men still looked down on perfume and makeup, but its religious and health connotations are undeniable. Seneca, for example, thought makeup caused the decline of Roman morality. 

The popularity of cosmetics came and went with the fashion trends in ancient Rome, but it did so along the lines of rigidly defined gender roles.

Let Them Wear Lipstick!

The early Christians were decidedly not fans of makeup. They prized asceticism and humility. To them, makeup was vain and decadent. As Christianity waxed the use of cosmetics waned. And while makeup never went away entirely in the West, it faded like cheap lipstick after a long night on the town.

Things started to change in the late 17th century. Religious wars and changing values loosened the expectations on court life, at least in cosmopolitan capitals. The Commercial Revolution brought an influx of consumer goods and increased the breadth and width of materials produced.


This all came to a head in Louis XIV’s France. Historian Morag Martin claims that High Fashion and advertising both emerged during the 18th century, a powerful one-two punch that revived cosmetics from its long slumber. The bright sheen of lipstick shone brightly in the court of the Sun King, and it wasn’t long before it spread throughout the bourgeoisie and aristocracy throughout Europe.

Like the Egyptians, both genders indulged in cosmetics use. Men and women alike wigs and powdered their face. And like ancient Egypt, they sabotaged their health in the process. Eighteenth century women had the habit of blanching their faces with white lead and hid pockmarks under white patches.

As beautifying became a more and more elaborate ritual, men and women prepared a whitening mixture with vinegar, lead, and horse manure to apply to their face. Beautiful. It inflamed eyes, weakened tooth enamel, caused hair-loss, irritated the skin and even killed the heaviest users. 

Ignorance was no excuse. Advertisers hawked makeup by labeling it as medicine, but doctors were well-aware of the poisonous consequences of wearing lead on your face. Despite this, the cosmetics and medical industries were intimately intertwined. The same men who sold health cures also sold cosmetics. So the modern “health and beauty” section you see in department stores has origins from this era.


Cosmetics use grew more and more exaggerated throughout the century before reaching a fever pitch on the brink of the French Revolution. The height of wigs had grown as high as the anger with the Royal court. By the 1780’s wigs towered up to 18 inches high. When all hell broke with loose after angry Parisians stormed the Bastille, cosmetics use saw a precipitous decline. Jacobins associated cosmetics with Marie Antoinette and the artifice of her entire class.

In retrospect, cosmetics have been sabotaging health for years, but, Paradoxically, have also been associated with health and have had some health benefits.

The role of cosmetics continued to change over the next two centuries, which we will explore in the next article!


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