Ancient Egyptian makeup more than meets the eye

By James Robertson

The “magical” eye makeup used by the ancient Egyptians, which actually contained toxic substances, could have helped fight eye infection, say French researchers working on mummies in the Louvre.

Some ancient Egyptians believed the black eye makeup worn by women in the time of the pharaohs had magical properties that protected the wearer from certain illnesses, under the protection of the gods Horus and Ra.  Eye infections are common in the swamps of the Nile when it floods and contaminated water gets into the eyes.


Bust of Nefertiti, Aegyptisches Museum, Berlin Germany.  NG stock photo by Victor R. Boswell, Jr. 

Originally scientists dismissed that the makeup could have medicinal qualities because the makeup was lead-based, which means it was probably toxic rather than helpful.  However, after testing the substances on human skin cells, the researchers found the substances in the makeup helped the cells produce nitric oxide, which helps jump-start the immune system.

Perhaps the most significant part of this discovery is the fact that the compounds used in the makeup don’t occur naturally and had to be man-made.  The scientists debate whether the Egyptians used the makeup for religious or medicinal purposes, but agree that “it is clear that such

intentional production remains the first known example of a large scale

chemical process,” they said in a statement.

Their findings will be presented in the January 15, 2010 issue of an American Chemical Society journal Analytic Chemistry.

Changing Planet


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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn