Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Making make-up in Ancient Egypt


The extensive use of green, white and black make-up has been known since the earliest periods of Egyptian history1,2. We have investigated cosmetic powders dating from between 2000 and 1200 BC that were preserved in their original containers. Quantitative crystallographic and chemical analysis of the organic and mineral components of the powders enabled us to identify two natural lead-based compounds: crushed ore of galena (PbS) and cerussite (PbCO3). We also found two unexpected constituents: laurionite (PbOHCl) and phosgenite (Pb2Cl2CO3). Because they are neither natural extracted ores nor products resulting from subsequent ageing or chemical modification, laurionite and phosgenite appear to be synthetic products manufactured by the Egyptians using ‘wet’ chemistry.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Analysis of cosmetic powders.


  1. Forbes, R. J. Studies in Ancient Technology Vol. III (Brill, Leiden, 1955).

  2. Lucas, A. & Harris, J. R. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries 80 – 97 (Arnold, London, 1963).

    Google Scholar 

  3. Vandier d'Abbadie, J. Catalogue des objets de toilette égyptiens du Musée du Louvre (Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris, 1972).

  4. Edwards, R., Gillard, R. D., Williams, P. A. & Pollard, A. M. Mineral. Mag. 56, 53–65 (1992).

    Google Scholar 

  5. Conophagos, C. in The Evolution of the First Fire-Using Industries (eds Wertime, T. A. & Wertime, S. F.) 181-191 (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC, 1982).

  6. Wellman, M. Dioscoridis Pedanii, de Materia Medica, Libri Quinque (Weidmannsche, Vienna, 1958).

  7. Zehnacker, H. Pline l'Ancien, Histoire Naturelle XXXIII (Belles Lettres, Paris, 1983).

  8. Lucas, A. in Quibell Ann. Serv. Antiq. Egypte 2, 141–143 (1901).

    Google Scholar 

  9. Bardinet, T. Les papyrus médicaux de l'Egypte pharaonique (ed. Fayard, Paris, 1995).

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Walter, P., Martinetto, P., Tsoucaris, G. et al. Making make-up in Ancient Egypt. Nature 397, 483–484 (1999).

Download citation

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing