Cosmetics in Ancient Days (The Story of Makeup Part 2)


The use of oils and butters in ancient times spans the globe.

In west Africa, shea butter was prized whereas henna from East Africa was plentiful.

In many ancient cultures makeup was used to mark important life events, such as the coming-of-age ceremonies (using clay), weddings (hands painted with henna) and sometimes to indicate marital or economic status.

In hot climates, the use of scented oils provided a much needed barrier to hold in moisture and to act as a shield against the dry parched air.  Similarly, oils and fats  were used by other cultures facing environmental challenges

i.e., The ancient Inuit would use animal fats or oils from lichen and/or moss to create salves to soothe chapped skin.They also used charcoal as a natural sunscreen.

In ancient China, cosmetics were viewed as a form of protection for the skin, face powder was made from rice and talc and was thought to provide protection from the sun as well as keeping it cool. Additionally, the use of plant based oils were thought to be protective against harsh weather and to prevent chapped lips. However as in many countries the ruling class dictated the styles at the time and some of them are just astounding.  Here is general breakdown of some of  the most powerful dynasties .

rice powder

  1. Song Dynasty (960-1279): During the Song Dynasty, makeup was popular among the upper classes, especially among women. Women often applied powder to their faces to create a pale complexion, which was considered a sign of beauty and high social status. They also painted their lips and eyebrows with red pigment and used colorful silk ribbons and flowers to decorate their hair.
  2. Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368): The Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty had their own unique style of makeup, which was influenced by their Central Asian heritage. Women during this time wore heavy, dark eyeliner and applied rouge to the cheeks in a large circular shape. Lips were painted red or orange, and some women even tattooed their faces with elaborate patterns.
  3. Ming Dynasty (1368-1644): During the Ming Dynasty, makeup styles became more refined and subtle. Women still favored a pale complexion, but they used rice powder instead of heavy makeup to achieve it. Lips were painted a rosy color, and eyebrows were delicately shaped and painted with ink.
  4. Qing Dynasty (1644-1912): During the Qing Dynasty, makeup styles evolved again, with a focus on natural beauty and simplicity. Women preferred a natural-looking complexion, and they often used a small amount of powder to reduce shine. Lips were painted in soft pink or red hues, and eyebrows were shaped to be slightly  

Two amazing resources for the history of makeup in China are below:,likely%20associated%20with%20good%20health.


Saffron in with mortar and pestle - India  

In India, oils such as sesame, almond oil, coconut oil were (and still are) used for bases for creams to rouge, to provide moisture and protection. Once again, every  country has multitudes of diverse environments, politics and so diverse styles and we can only be very general. 

In the middle east, and in India, spices were used to create cosmetics including saffron and turmeric. Oil was produced from various flowers to create pomades and bases for eyeshadows utilizing everything from shea butter to sesame oil.

Sandalwood oil holds its own special significance, being believed to be cooling to the skin offering relief from the heat but also having spiritual benefits like purification and the ability to ward off evil spirits.

In ancient Japan rice powder, red beans and indigo were commonly used to create cosmetics, rice powder for the skin, red beans for the lips and indigo as a source of blue eyeliner

North American Indigenous peoples were many and diverse and so were their uses of  natural ingredients . Depending on the area, various berries such as  - elderberries, chokecherries, blueberries, cranberries etc. were  dried and ground into a powder to create pigments. Charcoal was used much in the same way as kohl – to deflect the sun’s rays. Oils were often made by pressing wildflowers like evening primrose  and wild rose as well as sunflowers. All these oils were valued for their soothing  properties. Charcoal, soot and oils were used to make blacks,  the indigo plant were used to make blue and green pigments for face paints and body decoration. Red and yellow clays were used to adorn bodies and faces.


plant powders and spice powders



"Wayne Goodwill is an elder and artist from Standing Buffalo. He was brought in to share traditional teachings he learned about Indigenous body and face painting. "Face painting came with birthdays and Indian names, in death, people were painted when they die. People were painted when they were at battle. People painted when they are dancing," he said."

In American Native culture, blue symbolizes confidence, wisdom, sky, moon, water, lightning and sorrow. Green symbolizes healing, endurance, the earth, plant life and rain. Yellow symbolizes sun, dawn, day and wisdom. Finally, red symbolizes sunset, earth, war, blood and wounds.

The Romans and Greeks embraced Lead, a natural substance, to lighten  their skin - to make their skin as light as possible as skin  untouched by the sun was a mark of aristocracy in ancient Europe – it meant  you did not have to toil in the hot sun. It was not until  the industrial revolution that tanned skin became a status symbol - showing the  world you were a traveller ( more about that later).  

Lead face paint was used until the beginning of the 20th century – literally for centuries! Sapppho  was from 630 BC she may have worn the lead paint but maybe not as her family were exiled to the island of Lesbos . 

Wine was used as a toner and a blush. Olive oil was a great moisturizer and base for color pastes for shadows etc.  Soot was used to create black eyeliner ( also believed to have protective qualities) Henna and  red ochre as discussed,   and Alkanet – a plant that was used to create red and pink lipsticks and rouges. In addition, rose petals and lavender were used to create fragrant face powders.

The Moche and Nazca cultures of Peru used minerals such as hematite and manganese oxide to create red, brown and black paints. They extracted dyes and pigments from plants as well, such as indigo and achira root to create, blue, green  and yellow colours. 

The Guarani people,  indigenous to South America, used makeup  as a form of decoration, as well as for cultural and religious purposes.


Amazon Tupi Guarani tribe makeup in Brazil

One of the most common types of makeup used by the Guarani  (above) was annatto, a natural dye made from the seeds of the achiote tree. They used annatto to paint their bodies and faces in bright colors, such as red, orange, and yellow. This was often done during ceremonies or celebrations, as a way to show pride in their culture and traditions.

The Guarani also used makeup for religious purposes. They believed that by painting their faces and bodies, they could ward off evil spirits and protect themselves from harm. They used a type of clay called urucum to create intricate patterns on their skin, which they believed had magical properties.

In addition to annatto and urucum, the Guarani also used other natural materials for makeup, such as charcoal and crushed berries. These materials were used to create darker colors, which were often used to accentuate the eyes and eyebrows.

They also used animal products such as  the purpuri murex snail which produced a purple pigment and the cochineal insect, commonly known as carmine. Carmine is an ingredient which is essentially crushed bugs -  this is alarmingly still used in most makeup lines that are not vegan. It is used in a great deal of red food colouring as well. 


The ancients of Brazil used clay to create natural pigments in yellow, red and brown. They used charcoal to create black pigments and a variety of plant based  pigments including annatto, a yellow-orange pigment and urucum a red pigment. Like the Peruvians, they used manganese oxide and iron oxides to create red, brown and black pigments. 

Some of the oils used in South America in ancient days  for mixing with clays, minerals, plants, dyes, honey etc to create colorful  face  and  body paints  include: Jojoba oil, Sacha inchi oil, Bruiti oil, Rosa Mosqueta  (rosehip) oil, Ucuuba butter, Capuacu butter, and Andiroba oil. 

African oils of the day included argon oil, castor oil, coffee oil and marula oil. 

European oils included olive oil, almond oil, linseed oil and sesame oil. 

In China oils included tsubaki  oil ( Camellia oil) .

Japan used rice bran oil to improve skin tone and in India Sandalwood was used  for it's soothing skin properties. 

Today it appears we still use the same basic ingredients . As the saying goes  If it works ... don't fix it. 

  The handle is decorated with the emblem of the goddess Hathor. The mirror was found in the bottom of a coffin discovered in the tomb of Hatnefer (36.3.1).


The tools used by the ancients vary from area to area. 

The Egyptians used a variety of tools including khol sticks made of wood or metal, small spatulas, brushes made of reeds or animal hair as well as special stone palettes for mixing. Many were beautifully intricate.The handle is decorated with the emblem of the goddess Hathor. The mirror was found in the bottom of a coffin discovered in the tomb of Hatnefer (36.3.1) and can be viewed at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC. 


In India, brushes made of animal hair or feathers were used to apply makeup however the process of applying Kaja or kohl involves a small kaja stick or pencil The paste made from ground galena (lead) and was mixed with ghee, then formed into a "stick or pencil" and stored. 

In Europe, fingers and small animal hair brushes were used as tools, in Africa shells  and bones were fashioned into applicators  and in North America , small animal hair brushes, shells, fingers, woven fibers and feathers were used. 

And that's it  for our 2nd edition - let us know what you liked or  didn't - if you have any info  to add - PLEASE do! 


*references /more reading