FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE | January 11, 2010

Ancient Egyptian cosmetics: “Magical” makeup may have been medicine for eye disease

Note to journalists: Please credit the journal or the American Chemical Society as source of this research

WASHINGTON, Jan. 11, 2010 — There’s more to the eye makeup that gave Queen Nefertiti and other ancient Egyptian royals those stupendous gazes and legendary beauty than meets the eye. Scientists in France are reporting that the alluring eye makeup also may have been used to help prevent or treat eye disease by doubling as an infection-fighter. Their findings are scheduled for the next (Jan. 15, 2010) issue of the American Chemical Society (ACS) semi-monthly journal, Analytical Chemistry.

Christian Amatore, Philippe Walter, and colleagues note that thousands of years ago the ancient Egyptians used lead-based substances as cosmetics, including an ingredient in black eye makeup. Some Egyptians believed that this makeup also had a “magical” role in which the ancient gods Horus and Ra would protect wearers against several illnesses. Until now, however, modern scientists largely dismissed that possibility, knowing that lead-based substances can be quite toxic.

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In earlier research, the scientists analyzed 52 samples from ancient Egyptian makeup containers preserved in the Louvre museum in Paris. They identified four different lead-based substances in the makeup. In the new study, they found that the substances boosted production of nitric oxide by up to 240 per cent in cultured human skin cells. Modern scientists recognize nitric oxide as a key signalling agent in the body. Its roles include revving-up the immune system to help fight disease. Eye infections caused by bacteria can be a serious problem in tropical marshy areas such as the Nile area during floods, the scientists note. Therefore, the ancient Egyptians may have deliberately used these lead-based cosmetics to help prevent or treat eye disease, the researchers suggest, noting that two of the compounds do not occur naturally and must have been synthesized by ancient Egyptian “chemists.”

The full text of their paper is available here. An excerpt follows:

“The present data thus establish that the eyes of Egyptians bearing the black makeup were presumably prone to immediately resist a sudden bacterial contamination with extreme efficiency through the spontaneous action of their own immune cells. Indeed, it is well recognized today that in most tropical marshy areas, such as was the Nile area during floods, several bacterial infections are transmitted to humans following any accidental projection of contaminated water drops into one’s eye. These data fully support that Horus’ and Ra’s protection that ancient Egyptians associated with this makeup and particularly with its laurionite component was real and effective, despite the fact that its “magic” implications seemed a priori totally irreconcilable with our modern scientific views and contrast with our present understanding of the toxicity of lead ions. One cannot evidently go as far as to propose that laurionite was purposely introduced into the composition of the makeup because of any recognized antibacterial properties. Yet, one can presume that ancient Egyptian “chemists” recognized empirically that whenever this “white precipitate” was present in the makeup paste, their bearers were enjoying better health and thus decided to amplify this empirical protective function by specifically manufacturing laurionite. Many examples of such subtle observations and medical conclusions that would have a priori been surprising can be found even in our recent history. It is sufficient, for example, to think about the historical origin of penicillin, aspirin, or quinine. . .

Anyway, whether or not the manufacture of these lead chlorides was deliberately connected to preventive health care by Egyptians, it is clear that such intentional production remains the first known example of a large scale chemical process. It is no wonder that “kemej,” the Egyptian word that referred to the Egyptian land and to the black earth of the Nile valley, was handed to us via the Greeks and then the Arabs to eventually coin our present ‘chemistry’.”


Christian Amatore, Ph.D.
Ecole Normale SupÉrieure
DÉpartement de Chimie
UniversitÉ Pierre et Marie Curie
Paris, France
Phone: 33-1-44323388


Philippe Walter, Ph.D.
CNRS Research & Restoration Center of Museums
Paris, France
Phone: 33-1-40205989