The Origin of Makeup

Egyptian art showing kohl

Who even started wearing makeup in the first place? Many people act like makeup, especially the heavy use of it, is some sort of modern phenomenon but that simply isn’t true at all. According to an article I accessed through my college’s library database called “History of Cosmetics” by S K Chaudhri and NK Jain, the Egyptians were the first ones we know of to wear cosmetics, as early as 10,000 BC. Cosmetics were important to the Egyptians and women would bring their makeup with them to parties in small boxes that they would store underneath their chairs. “Opthamology of the Pharaohs” from Discover Magazine even says that the cosmetics was buried alongside the deceased, which the Egyptians believed meant they would have them in the afterlife. And people say I’m obsessed.

What is a slightly newer phenomenon is makeup only being for women. With its modern use one might think makeup was invented purely as a patriarchal tool but that doesn’t seem to be the case (not that it didn’t evolve into it later). In Egypt, people of all gender, age, and class would wear cosmetics which included scented oils and paints and dyes for the face. The most notable of Egyptian makeup is kohl, a dark powder that was basically the ancient equivalent of eyeliner. It was used around the eyes and also on the eyebrows. I used to think that the depiction of Egyptians with the thick rimmed eyes was just a stylistic thing in their art, but nope, that’s actually what they did (almost makes me feel better about how much eyeliner I used to wear…).

Besides enhancing the appearance, there is evidence that kohl served a functional purpose. It may have been used to deflect the sun’s glare away, much like the black stripes a football player applies. It also trapped some of the desert dust from going into the eye, and may have been used as an anti-microbial ointment, according to the ScienceMag article “Egyptian Eyeliner May Have Warded Off Disease“. So it seems that the Egyptians’ use of makeup was a little more useful than ours in addition to being less sexist. Not everything about kohl is beneficial though, as it was largely made of lead sulfide. The kohl eyeliners you’ll find at your store here today are only kohl in name, but people in certain parts of the world like North Africa and Central Asia continue to use it. Personally, I’ll skip out on the lead but instead honor the inventors of eyeliner through some nice thick wings.



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