Cosmetics in Ancient Greece

Olive oil was an important beauty product in ancient Greece.
... Sean Gallup/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Caring for the body and striving to make it more attractive is as old as human civilization. The word ''cosmetic'' comes from the Greek word ''kosmetikos,'' meaning a sense of harmony, order and tranquility. Not surprisingly, most beauty products in ancient Greece were made from ingredients found in their natural environment. However, ancient Greeks also used harsh substances to achieve a pale complexion, which was then fashionable.

1 Olive Oil

Because olive trees are so naturally abundant in Greece, olive oil was the lifeblood of ancient Greek culture. Based on archaeological evidence from the Aegean islands, it is believed that olive cultivation started in Crete during the Minoan period. Initially, olive oil was extracted for making fragrance oils. Later Greeks began using olive oil for food, lighting, pharmaceutical purposes and cosmetic use. In ancient Greece, olive oil became a staple for daily personal hygiene and body care. Especially for women, it was used as a beautifying skin cleanser, after-bath moisturizer and personal lubricant. Greek men rubbed olive oil on their bodies before exercising in the gymnasium or going into battle.

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2 Honey

The use of honey as a cosmetic in ancient Greece dates all the way back to 5000 BC, when skin care was based on bee products, goat's milk, flowers, herbs and olive oil. Minoan women enjoyed honey and milk baths as part of their nightly beauty regimen. Today, honey is still a major ingredient in contemporary Greek beauty products.

3 White Lead

Ancient Greek women made up their faces with a cosmetic foundation called fucus, made from powdered chalk and white lead. That's right, lead, the same element now known to be hazardous to human health. Women in classical antiquity were unaware of lead poisoning, so they freely painted their faces with the toxic metal to create pale, lustrous complexions. They also slathered on a lead-based facial mask to clear up blemishes and remove impurities from their skin.

4 Charcoal

This sooty, black substance, usually made from sticks of charred wood, proved useful as eye makeup. Similar to the Egyptians, ancient Greek women defined and emphasized their eyes by staining them with black powders. They used charcoal, soot and ashes as eyeliner, brow filler and eyeshadow; they also used kohl or powdered antimony, a toxic chemical similar to lead. While today's aesthetic values may differ, the women of ancient Greece preferred very dark, heavy, exaggerated eyebrows. For a time, even connected eyebrows (the "unibrow") was in vogue.

5 Natural Pigments and Vegetable Dyes

Many herbs, flowers, vegetables and fruits indigenous to Greece found their way into ancient cosmetics. Roses, anemones, mulberries, lotus flowers, marigolds, lavender and chamomile are just a few examples. The ancient Greeks were also known to create beauty products from natural pigments, plant roots, red wine and mastic, an aromatic resin. Red vegetable dyes, such as beetroot, were especially common to give a flourishing, rose-pink hue to the lips and cheeks.

Shannon Leigh O'Neil, a New York City-based arts and culture writer, has been writing professionally since 2008. Her articles have appeared in "GO Magazine," "The New York Blade" and "HX Magazine," as well as online media. O'Neil holds a Master of Arts in modern art history from the City College of New York, where she also studied French and minored in classical languages.