Beauty History: Cosmetics Secrets of the Ancient Romans

by Gio
the beauty secrets of the ancient romans

Did you know that the Ancient Romans started using cosmetics for ritual purposes only? But as time went on, makeup and skincare became a natural part of women’s everyday lives.

Wealthy people bought imported makeup from China and Germany, while the poor could only afford cheaper knock-offs of such “high-end” cosmetics.

Due to the weather conditions and the poor quality of their cosmetics, women needed to reapply their makeup several times a day (talk about dedication!).

By the way, rich women didn’t apply their makeup themselves. They had female slaves called Cosmetae for them. Cosmetae also mades creams, lotions and cosmetics. But how?


As many other ancient people, the Romans prized fair, white skin. A typical case of “I want what I can’t have.” Their complexion was naturally darker, so they used chalk powder, white marl and white lead (yes, a poison!) to lighten it.

Eye Makeup

The Ancient Romans liked large eyes with long eyelashes and eyebrows that almost met. They darkened their eyebrows with antimony or soot and then extended them inwards.

To make the eyes darker, they used kohl made with saffron, ashes, soot or antimony . The kohl was applied with a glass, ivory, wood or bone sticks that had to be dipped into either water or oil before putting them on the eyes.

Another way to darken the eyes was to use date stones and charred petal roses. But the Romans also used colorful eyeshadows. To make green, they used the mineral malachite while blue came from azurite.

Cheeks & Nails

The Romans believed pink on the cheeks to a be a sign of gold health. As a blush, Roman women used poppy and rose petals, red chalk, alkanet, Tyrian vermillion, crocodile dung, red ochre (it was more expensive as it was imported from Belgium), mulberry juice, wine dregs, cinnabar and red lead (these two were poisonous!).

On the nails, they applied a mixture made with sheep fat and blood.


The Ancient Romans also made creams and lotions to fight and hide wrinkles, pimples, sun spots, freckles and flaking. These masks were a mixture of lentels, barley, lupine, honey or fennel blended with oils, oregano seeds, sulphur, vinegar, goose grease, basil juice and hawthorn. Sometimes they added an essence of rose or myrrah.

Other ingredients used in ancient skincare products were placenta and even excrements of some animals like kingfisher or calves! And we think modern Koreans are weird…

Pimples? The Ancient Romans cured them with a mixture of barley flour and butter. For sun spots, they used ashes of snails. Ewwww!


The Ancient Roman loved perfume.. Smelling good was a sign of good health – and a handy way to hide the bad odour of their makeup!

Perfumes were available in liquid, sticky or solid forms and were made by macerating flowers, leaves and roots. These were added to the base of the perfume, a substance called Onfacio derived from the maceration of olives or grape juice. The perfume was then mixed with dyes.

FYI, the Ancient Romans also used deodarants made with alum, rose petals and iris.


Roman women wore wings to hide white hair or hair that was damaged by hair dyes. During the Imperial eras, these wigs were made with real hair: blonde was imported from Northern Europe, while black from India.

Talking about dyes, the Romans used them to accentuate hair colours. Blonde hair was enhanced with a mixture of Beeches Ash and goat’s fat while red was maintained by pulverizing the leaves of the Lawsonia Inermis, a plant in the henna family. Black was made from black antimony with animal fat, cypress leaves that were first brewed and then saturated in vinegar or absinthe’s ash mixed with rose oil.

Body Hair

The Ancient Roman didn’t like hair on women (unless it was on their heads of course!). So, women removed them by plucking or shaving. Sometimes, they also used a resin paste to strip them or a pumice stone to scrape them.

Men and Makeup

In Ancient Rome, men who wore makeup were considered immoral and effeminate. Still, some of them used white powder on their faces to lighten their complexions.

What was acceptable for men instead was the moderate removal of hair and the use of perfume. During the Emperor’s Commodo’s times, dyeing hair blonde become fashionable for men too.



Simone April 2, 2010 - 2:55 pm

Really interesting! It’s nice to hear that bright eyeshadows have been around for such a long time. However, I don’t think I would want to put some of those ingredients on my skin or nails. Sheep fat and blood? No thanks! XD
.-= Simone´s last blog ..I hate false lashes. =-.

beautifulwithbrains April 2, 2010 - 3:52 pm

Simone, I agree with you, some of those ingredients are so disgusting! I don’t want them anywhere near me but I guess they had to make do with what they had. πŸ™‚

Dana H. August 11, 2016 - 7:29 am

So y’all don’t use lip gloss? Isn’t that made from whale fat……

Gio August 11, 2016 - 2:27 pm

Dana, good point haha! I guess the finished product isn’t so disgusting. But, sometimes, it’s better not to know what they contain lol

Rebecca April 2, 2010 - 5:59 pm

Huh, funny how things haven’t really changed that much – except ingredients, no
more crocodile dung! πŸ˜› It’s interesting to see that even back then it wasn’t considered attractive for women to have body hair… I’ve always wondered where that originated.
.-= Rebecca´s last blog ..Misikko’s Hana Flat Iron review & [my very first] GIVEAWAY! =-.

beautifulwithbrains April 2, 2010 - 6:56 pm

Rebecca, that’s what I thought too, some trends never go away and it seems that just like nowadays people always want what they don’t naturally have like a fair complexion when they’re darker-skinned. But yay for no more excrements on skin!

I was wondering about that too, I was hoping women back then were luckier and didn’t have to shave lol. I don’t like body hair but removing it is a pain! πŸ™‚

Golden April 3, 2010 - 3:05 am

This is interesting. I learned a lot from this, didn’t know that ancient Romans were so vain!

Lots of love,
.-= Golden´s last blog ..Uh-Oh, Mommy Golden Forgot Someone’s 1st Birthday =-.

Nikki April 3, 2010 - 5:03 am

thanks for sharing! such a wonderful read!!! Men are as vain as women!! and I think at the present stage, men are going back to the Roman Era πŸ˜€
.-= Nikki´s last blog ..AMW Reviews: Montagne Jeunesse’ Chocolate Masque =-.

ToTheSunnySide April 3, 2010 - 5:41 am

I love your posts about beauty history. Keep them up πŸ˜€

All Women Stalker April 4, 2010 - 2:25 am

White lead? Yikes!
I love these posts,too πŸ™‚

beautifulwithbrains April 4, 2010 - 8:40 pm

Golden, I’m glad you found it interesting. I guess some things never change, do they? πŸ™‚

beautifulwithbrains April 4, 2010 - 8:48 pm

Nikki, I’m glad you enjoyed it and I think you’re right. Men are fast becoming very vain too. πŸ™‚

beautifulwithbrains April 4, 2010 - 8:50 pm

ToTheSunnySide, I’m glad you do and I will, thanks. πŸ™‚

beautifulwithbrains April 4, 2010 - 9:09 pm

All Women Stalker, I agree, that’s disgusting and toxic! But I guess there weren’t too many options at the time. πŸ™

I’m glad you do, ta. πŸ™‚

Marina(Makeup4all) April 5, 2010 - 2:56 pm

Great post because 1) I love history/culture/traditions of Anciet Rome (not only) and 2) I obviosly love makeup πŸ™‚
.-= Marina(Makeup4all)´s last blog ..Happy Easter! =-.

beautifulwithbrains April 5, 2010 - 3:30 pm

Marina, thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed it. That of Ancient Rome was a really fascinating time. πŸ™‚

Courtney Belyea May 30, 2011 - 10:21 pm

Would barley flour and butter really work for acne?

beautifulwithbrains May 31, 2011 - 1:57 pm

Courtney, I haven’t tried but I really doubt it would work.

susan borrow November 14, 2011 - 7:48 am

do you know any one who does demonstrations on roman beauty therapys, i want to put togeather some workshops at my self catering cottages.

beautifulwithbrains November 14, 2011 - 7:20 pm

Susan, what a lovely idea! But I’m afraid I don’t know anyone who does this kind of demonstrations, sorry.

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Sara November 16, 2012 - 3:49 pm

thanks lot for all this info. it help me a lot for my school project in history

beautifulwithbrains November 16, 2012 - 10:36 pm

Sara, you’re welcome. Glad I could be of help.

Sara November 18, 2012 - 9:44 am

how do you know all this information ???

beautifulwithbrains November 18, 2012 - 10:14 pm

Sara, I love history and I’m always reading history books and doing research online. Most of the info in this post comes from online sources.

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M.j May 15, 2013 - 3:46 pm

During that time, the ancient greek woman would Inject their eyes with a toxic chemical to make their eyes sparkle like the gods. do to the results of the injections, the user would go blind or die from a disease.

beautifulwithbrains May 15, 2013 - 5:52 pm

Mj, oh dear! Really? I didn’t know that. How awful!

M.j May 16, 2013 - 5:04 pm

yes its quite awful.

M.j May 16, 2013 - 5:13 pm

I’m only 13 and I already know the dangers of makeup throughout history

beautifulwithbrains May 17, 2013 - 7:45 pm

Mj, that’s great. Beauty practices through the ages is a fascinating topic, isn’t it?

M.j May 16, 2013 - 5:33 pm

i did more research on the chemical and I believe the substance to be antimony.

beautifulwithbrains May 17, 2013 - 7:45 pm

Mj, thank you for sharing that with us.

Shakira March 4, 2015 - 3:03 am

Y’all shouldn’t think so badly on makeup but thanks for all this wonderful information that you all gave me this was a great success for my project It even gave me an a plus thanks for everything you all have taught me

Gio March 4, 2015 - 8:18 pm

Shakira, my pleasure. I’m glad this post helped you with your project, and congrats on getting an A plus!

Kaitlin February 3, 2016 - 2:05 am

I love this website it gave me lots of Info I had to do an ancient Rome project on makeup and It was hard until I found this website I would give it 5 stars and a big thumbs up!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Gio February 3, 2016 - 7:00 am

Kaitlin, oh, thank you so much! So glad to hear it helped you.

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