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Beauty. A thing of the past

issue one : borrowed from before

Editorial Photography: Gabrielle Menzes | Words & Beauty: Khandiz Joni

As with everything in life, things eventually come full circle. So too has the quest to reinvestigate the power of plants and nature for our beauty products. According to the Soil Associations latest report, the natural and organic beauty sector has grown  over 13% in the last year, with the UK market alone, being worth an estimated £61.2 million. 

This trend proves that we are looking to the past to address our current and future beauty needs. It seems cosmetic formulators, industry insiders, influencers and consumers alike, are returning to their roots of beauty… literally. We are seeing an upturn in historic ingredients starting to feature heavily in modern formulations.

It should be no secret by now that beauty practices throughout history have used some questionable ingredients to achieve the fashion of the times. While much has changed with the advancements in science and research, in some ways much has also remained the same. Many modern day beauties still use products tainted by toxic ingredients.

Join us on a visual journey to remind ourselves (or for some of you, to learn for the first time) about the sheer ludicrousness of what women (and men) have been subjecting themselves to, since the beginning of modern civilisation, in the quest for eternal youth and varying beauty ideals.

Ding Dong Dung & Udder Bizarre Ingredients

We have quite literally been wearing “shit” on our faces and bodies for centuries. From crocodile, nightingale and cow dung to indulgently bathing in asses milk. The beauty queens of the past have tried it all!

‘Cleopatra’s Milk Bath’, contemporary mosaic by Irel.

Cleopatra was said to have bathed in the milk of 700 asses and mix crocodile dung along with donkey’s milk to make face masks which was thought to help lighten skin. The milk was said to have anti-ageing and skin smoothing properties thanks to the naturally occurring alpha hydroxy acids, which are still a popular beauty ingredient today (The alpha hydroxy acids, not the asses milk!) 

 Model:  Jenny Meister  at MoT Models
Model: Jenny Meister at MoT Models

The ancient Egyptians had real beauty game, with some ingenious tricks up their proverbial sleeves… their love of liner for one thing. Oh yes… forget Bollywood’s perfected kohl rimmed cat eye. It was Cleopatra and Nefertiti who started that trend baby! The first of the beauty queens if you like – and a source of ongoing inspirations for some other queens. The higher the brow…or something like that.

Only the gods know what they really looked liked (this subject has been long debated), but to have left such an impression on the history of beauty, they must certainly have had something going for them.

Model:  Jenny Meister  at MoT Models
Model: Jenny Meister at MoT Models

Beauty was BIG in the ancient days. Having dedicated servants to apply your beauty products meant wealth and status. 

In ancient Greece and Rome, pale skin was paramount to denote a higher rank in society. Lead or chalk was applied to the skin to achieve this ‘complexion.’ As you probably know, the toxicity of lead wasn’t discovered for many thousands of years and saw women dying early deaths well into the Victorian era. Only the common folk who toiled in the afternoon sun tainting their skin with a tan, I’ll have you know.

This skin lightening concept is still practised today in many eastern and African cultures, for the same – dare I say, prehistoric mindset; that pale skin depicts a higher class. In western culture, we seem to want to embrace that darker, “tainted-by-the-sun” kind of colour.

The Romans liked a ‘unified brow.’ A strong dark brow that met in the centre. A mixture of charcoal (soot) and oil was used to create these distinctive brows. More recently, the unibrow was made famous by artist and feminist, Frida Kahlo. What a babe! 

It seems the men of the time didn’t really approve of “makeup” back then, either. The look of the day was more “the no-makeup makeup look” trend we are seeing today – but even back then, it took an age to create the perfect complexion. Unless of course, you were part of the upper echelons of society and then a bit of colour was permitted. Or of course, if you were a prostitute – it is the oldest profession after all.

Prostitution has been linked to excessive makeup and pungent perfume since the beginning too. Why, you ask? Well,  it was because quality cosmetics were an expensive commodity, so prostitutes (and common folk) had to used cheaper, inferior “products” that needed regular reapplication and bore a rather pungent odour, which intern needed to be covered up with some cheap perfume. They were often paid partly in cosmetics. Adapt or die right? 

Colours Of The Past

The only hair the Romans felt was acceptable was the hair on their heads. Hair removal was all the rage.  Shaving, waxing, epilating and/or electrolysis has been a part of our modern beauty regime for many moons now, but it’s the trend of sugaring that is that is taking its cue from the past. While it was technically the Egyptians that invented sugaring, it was the Roman’s took hair removal to a whole new level.

The Grecians favoured hair the colour of gold and used vinegar and Portuguese urine (apparently, because it was more potent than their own) and the heat from the sun to lighten their locks.  If you were a single lady and had yet to tie the knot, your hair was worn loose and carefree, but once you were betrothed, that hair went up! Hair was then adorned with jewels and headdresses, and your slave’s hair, naturally. Oh yes, they also made their slaves cut their hair off and donate it for their wig collections.

The ancient Greeks, Egyptians and the Romans all used malachite (green) and azurite (blue) to adorn their eyes with colour. The minerals were crushed up to make the first known eye shadows. The latter two civilisations also used Kohl – made from the dark grey ore of lead, and used to rim the eyes. In Egypt, it was thought to protect, not only, the eyes from the harsh sunlight, but also ward off evil spirit. The kohl helped to give the appearance of large, bright, full lashed eyes, which the Romans favoured.

Apparently, if your lashes fell out in ancient Rome, it meant you were having too much sex – so the ladies of the day made sure their lashes were fully fluffed to appear virginal.

Oh how they would have loved the advances of modern life. It gives a whole new perspective to the semi-permanent lashes we are seeing (falling out) now.

 Model:  Manon Eleri Steele
Model: Manon Eleri Steele

From ancient Greece to Rome to Egypt and then onwards to the Elizabethan era. After applying their various concoctions of toxic whitening makeup, women used natural staining ingredients to ‘inject’ some colour back into their lips and cheeks.

Mulberries, beetroot and red ochre have been used as blush and lip tinting for thousands of years. The blood of Cochineal beetles (known as Carmine) was also used for this purpose and is also still used today in many coloured cosmetics and as a food additive.

Red ochre is also worn by the Fulbe and Himbe tribes of Africa. They mix the iron oxide with fat and is worn all over the face and body for cultural festivals (Fulbe tribes) and simply for everyday life (Himbe tribes).

 Model:  Manon Eleri Steele
Model: Manon Eleri Steele

It was rather forward thinking of dear old Elizabeth the 1st, noticing that the hands tell time – in this case, they show a woman’s age. She was said to cover up her hands and even use masks to preserve their youthful appearance.

We have read how Cleopatra bathed in asses milk to keep her appearance youthful and how the women of Rome aspired to appear virginal (aka youthful) with the use of lightly applied makeup to help the illusion along. Now we look further ahead in time to the Elizabethan period.

While still favouring a deathly pallor, even more so than in previous periods. Receding hairlines that would make a man baulk at the very thought of it, were all the rage because the tale of the times was the large forehead implied you were intelligent. The Elizabethans pretty much invented the facelift.

It was said that Queen Elizabeth I used egg white on her face for its firming and tightening properties. The rest of the kingdom followed suit of course. Hey, at least this beauty practice wasn’t killing people!

There were numerous bizarre beauty practices around this time, many of which were killing off the kingdom. From blood sucking leeches to help pale the skin to swallowing tape worms to tighten up the waistline, wearing and swallowing arsenic and mercury were common practice. They also used Belladonna (otherwise known as deadly nightshade) as ‘eye drops’ to mimic what the eyes do naturally when aroused.

While these remedies mentioned above are by no means an exhaustive list of ancient beauty practices, it was certainly the interesting place to start… 


Lisa Eldridge’s book, ‘Face Paint: The Story of Makeup‘ is an excellent addition to any beauty aficionado’s collection. Not to mention her video channel is a wealth of tips and tricks, and worth their weight in gold. But you know that already!

Finally, take a look at some of my favourite untainted beauty brands that use ingredients from the past; they are bug blood, lead and arsenic free, promise!

untainted |ˌənˈtān(t)əd| adjective
not contaminated, polluted, or tainted: the paper was untainted by age.

UNTAINTED is a directional beauty platform, pushing the boundaries of clean, sustainable beauty. We are inspired and motivated by the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-sabi.

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