How Cleopatra's Eye Make-Up Protected Her

Barcelona graffiti showing a popular depiction of Cleopatra
Barcelona graffiti showing a popular depiction of Cleopatra | © Wikimedia Commons
Sarah Williams

One of history’s most famous women, Cleopatra was a mighty queen of Egypt. Married to both Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony, the fearless leader was famous for her colourful and heavy eye makeup. Historians believe that there may have been more behind her makeup choice than simply aesthetic value, however.

Cleopatra’s eye makeup style

Cleopatra enhanced her appearance with a variety of products. She wore golden-flecked bright blue eye shadow on her top eyelids and green paste on her lower eyelids. She used deep black kohl to make her eyelashes longer, darken her eyebrows, and accentuate her eyes.

Modern depiction of Cleopatra

Ancient Egyptian makeup

Scene showing people from ancient Egypt

Popular fashion custom in the past

Although Cleopatra was one of the most famous women from her era, she was not the only ancient Egyptian woman to wear striking eye makeup. The smoky eye effect, created by using thick black eyeliner and vibrant eye shadow, was a popular look in the past. Researchers have found that almost everyone wore such makeup in ancient Egypt, including men and women from all societal classes. Indeed, the makeup trend is still popular in many parts of the world in the present day.

Superstitions related to makeup

Documents from ancient Egyptian times suggest that people believed that the Gods would give protection to people wearing certain makeup. Those seeking divine interventions from Ra and Horus to help them avoid falling sick would apply makeup.

Horus among the hieroglyphics

Scientific benefits of makeup in ancient Egypt

Analysis of makeup residue found that it contained lead salts. Although lead is often harmful to humans, the low amounts in the eye makeup are believed to have boosted the immune system. Scientific experiments found that lead chloride salt can produce nitric oxide when it comes into contact with the skin. Indeed, studies suggest that ancient Egyptians could have seen a 240% increase in their nitric oxide levels when wearing eye makeup. Nitric oxide stimulates immune cells, helping to prevent infections of the eye and assisting with the treatment of bacterial eye diseases.

Furthermore, it is believed that the black kohl contained antiseptic properties and helped to deter flies. Dark shades around the eyes helped to protect the eyes from the fierce glare of the sun, and lengthened eyelashes helped to protect the eyes from sand, dust, and other debris.

Smoky eye makeup

It is likely that Cleopatra’s eye makeup helped to protect her from common eye diseases of her time, such as conjunctivitis, as well as enhancing her acclaimed natural beauty.

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