The Story of Makeup - Part 1

Discover the fascinating story of makeup with SAPPHO! Noemie and I are passionate about this topic and excited to share with you monthly instalments that highlight the most popular trends of different cultures throughout history.

Starting with ancient civilizations and progressing to modern times, in this blog series we'll delve into the general feel of each period, exploring why these trends existed and how they were represented.

Although we'll cover each area in a sweeping way, we invite our readers to contribute their knowledge and insights to enhance our understanding of this subject. As a big world with regional and cultural differences, we cannot cover everything, but we believe that by sharing our knowledge, we can become richer as a community. Our aim is to, of course, show photos but we also hope to both recreate some of these iconic makeup looks along the way and see what our community can do too!

While we'll present each period under a heading, we won't necessarily follow chronological order within the text. Sometimes we'll focus on style, while at other times, we'll explore cosmetic preparations – and sometimes both. Join us on this journey to uncover some of the fascinating aspects of the history of makeup!

Stone bust of Nefertiti with kohl eyeliner


The use of cosmetics in ancient times from most cultures served not only to enhance physical appearance but also often held spiritual and cultural significance. They also had practical applications.

When I, like most makeup students, started to learn about the history of makeup, one of the first images I was introduced to you was the image of Cleopatra.

Cleopatra, in many ways, embodies a great deal of the cosmetic rituals of ancient days for numerous cultures. In this blog, we will delve into the main products she is famous for and see how they relate to other cultures of the same time. In the ensuing blog, we will delve into some of the natural and plant ingredients of the day across the world. 

We will use historical stock photos and the occasional SAPPHO recreation to communicate various styles through time. 

We will also see that toxicity and makeup have a long intertwined history.

Nefertiti inspired makeup


Nefertiti and Cleopatra’s use of kohl liner is legendary, but we see kohl being used by many cultures in the southern hemisphere, where the sun is bright.

The basis for most kohl cosmetics at the time, is a stone called galena and it is toxic, with its primary component being lead. Long term use could and did lead to damage to the brain & nervous system, organ toxicity, infertility as well as learning and behaviour problems.

The use of kohl around the eyes was believed to protect the eyes from dust and glare. In today’s application  think of a football player, for example – those little black smudges can be there for a similar purpose!

Around for thousands of years, kohl is a dark powder/paste made from ingredients that have included lead (toxic), charcoal (toxic – especially made with low quality or impure charcoal) or manganese (relatively safe).

The history of kohl dates to ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India, being used for spiritual, practical and cosmetic purposes. As well as physically protective qualities, it was also thought to ward off evil spirits and to have medicinal properties. Kohl was used to treat eye infections and/or to soothe the eyes in hot dusty conditions. Ironically, in Egypt, the toxic paste or black kohl was associated with life and fertility.

Kohl was used to enhance the beauty of the eye, lending that perfect Cleopatra almond shape and darkened brows. Often, kohl was applied in intricate designs that varied according to the fashion of the day.

In ancient India the application of kaja or khol was and remains an art form,  with the thickness or thinness of a line being dictated by fashion or circumstance. The process of applying kaja involves a small kaja stick or pencil. The paste was made from ground galena (lead) and was mixed with ghee or oils, then formed into a "stick or pencil" and stored. 

Close up of Cleopatra to show kohl eyeliner and dark brows

However.... I am going to leave this here as during my research, I found the recipe project, so here is what they hypothesize about the safety of the use of kohl in ancient Egypt.


Red ochre, a naturally occurring pigment, was used in religious ceremonies in Egypt to symbolize the life-giving power of the sun. Red ochre is also referred to as a clay. It was used throughout Africa to enhance skin and hair and believed to hold medicinal and spiritual properties. Like other natural colorants it was also used for art. 

In ancient Egypt, both men and women used a red ochre clay called "rouge" on their cheeks and lips to add color to their face.

In North America, red ochre would be used as a pigment by many of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest (where we live) in potlatch ceremonies, which were held to mark important events including births, deaths, and marriages. Red Ochre was also used as symbol of war among the Plains Indians of North America – the red body paint invoking the spirit of ancestors and the seeking of protection in battle.

In ancient China, red ochre was applied to the cheeks, lips and nails to ‘enhance’ beauty and and to create a rosy glow. It was also believed to have medicinal properties that were good for treating skin conditions.

In Japan, red ochre was also used on cheeks and lips but also used to dye clothing as it was such a resilient colour.

In ancient India, the use of red ochre as a cosmetic reflected the values of good luck and prosperity. It was also used in Hindu religious rituals where it was applied to the forehead and other parts of the body as a symbol of devotion.

In contrast, however, red ochre was also used as symbol of war: in Hindu mythology, the god of war Hanuman is depicted as having a body covered in  red ochre, symbolizing his strength and power to invoke fear in his enemies.

The San people from South Africa would use red ochre to paint their whole bodies for spiritual and cultural rituals.

Various peoples across South America also used minerals such as red ochre but also used many plants to create dyes and colours, some used in cosmetics. Rather than kohl, charcoal was in abundance.

Ethiopian woman with red ochre face and hair paint


Malachite is a green mineral and has been used for eye makeup by many cultures such as Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.

Ancient Egyptians also used a green clay called "malachite" to paint their eyes, which was believed to protect against eye infections and evil spirits.

In China and Central America, malachite was ground down to a fine powder and mixed with oils and fats to create a cosmetic paste. The mixture can also referred to as a clay.

Malachite was often perceived to have spiritual and medical qualities and was used in amulets to ward off evil, as well as used to treat eye infections and other ailments.

The ancient Aztecs and the Mayans mixed ground malachite with plant or animal oils to create a paste used to paint their faces, hair and bodies. This was done for religious rituals and the designs were very intricate. 

Malachite stones traditionally used in cosmetics throughout history


Lapis lazuli is a deep blue stone (metamorphic rock) prized for thousands of years for its rarity and beauty. It was used for cosmetics in many ancient cultures as well as for decorative paint. Globally, it was seen to hold some degree of spiritual or medicinal property.

As a cosmetic in ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece, lapis lazuli was ground down to a fine powder and then used to enhance the lips, eyes and nails. As with malachite, it was also used in amulets to repel evil, and to treat eye infections. This mixture can also be referred to as a clay. 

In China, the deep blue stone was ground down for eyeshadow and eyeliner as well as used as a decorative paint for ceramics and similarly in Japan, its other use was for ink for calligraphy and painting.

In ancient India, the stone also had spiritual and medicinal properties, being used for eyeshadow and liner, but also thought to be helpful in calming the mind and used in Hindu rituals to ward off evil.

This blue stone was used by both the Mayans and Aztecs mixed with plant and  or animal oils much the same as how they used malachite. Some factions also considered lapis lazuli to have spiritual and protective qualities. 

Lapis lazuli rocks used in cosmetics in history


Clays and muds in truth have been used for cosmetic purposes for thousands of years. In many ancient cultures, including Egypt, Greece, Rome, and India, clay and mud were used as a natural form of face makeup.

In ancient Greece and Rome, women used a white lead powder called "ceruse" to lighten their skin and create a porcelain complexion. This powder was often mixed with vinegar or water and applied to the face and neck.

In India, a traditional form of face makeup called "ubtan" has been used for centuries. Ubtan is a mixture of various clays, with turmeric, sandalwood, and chickpea flour, which is applied to the face and body to cleanse, exfoliate, and brighten the skin.

Below we see the use of mud/clay creating a ghostly effect for a Tanzanian dancer. They have been used in Eastern Africa for centuries as body and face adornment.

Today, many natural skincare and beauty brands continue to use clay and mud as key ingredients in their products. These are believed to have numerous benefits for the skin, including drawing out impurities, balancing oil production, and soothing inflammation.

Klua Traditional Dancer / Tanzania Photo 184801449 / Tribal Makeup © Robin Batista |


And here we come to the end of our first instalment. Knowing there are a billion things left out or not known by us is an understatement, so if you have info to add to this blog regarding practices, customs, ingredients, tools, rituals, styles, history, photos or makeups  please drop us a line at

References and more reading: