Dark, black kohl surrounded the eyes of ancient Egyptians for beauty and protection, but were they using toxic lead in their make-up?
A recent study in France says it's likely ancient Egyptians used lead-based make-up for the kohl that decorated their eyes. A local maker of natural beauty products, however, disagrees.
"We have analyzed more than 70 samples from makeup containers preserved in the Louvre museum and about 80 percent of them are lead-based compounds," said Philippe Walter, one of the authors of the study that is published in the journal Analytical Chemistry.
The study was carried out after excavations of women’s tombs yielded ancient cosmetic bags, along with with mirrors, hairpins, eyeliner applicators and makeup receptacles.
Walter said, however, that they only examined jars of coloring, not make-up that is known for certain to have been used on humans.
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Finding Out Egyptian Gods’ Secret Using Analytical Chemistry: Biomedical Properties of Egyptian Black Makeup Revealed by Amperometry at Single Cells
Issa Tapsoba, Stphane Arbault, Philippe Walter and Christian Amatore
Anal. Chem., 2010, 82 (2), pp 457–460
Publication Date (Web): December 23, 2009 (Letter)
Here's the abstract:
Lead-based compounds were used during antiquity as both pigments and medicines in the formulation of makeup materials. Chemical analysis of cosmetics samples found in Egyptians tombs and the reconstitution of ancient recipes as reported by Greco-Roman authors have shown that two non-natural lead chlorides (laurionite Pb(OH)Cl and phosgenite Pb2Cl2CO3) were purposely synthesized and were used as fine powders in makeup and eye lotions. According to ancient Egyptian manuscripts, these were essential remedies for treating eye illness and skin ailments. This conclusion seems amazing because today we focus only on the well-recognized toxicity of lead salts. Here, using ultramicroelectrodes, we obtain new insights into the biochemical interactions between lead(II) ions and cells, which support the ancient medical use of sparingly soluble lead compounds. Submicromolar concentrations of Pb2+ ions are shown to be sufficient for eliciting specific oxidative stress responses of keratinocytes. These consist essentially of an overproduction of nitrogen monoxide (NO°). Owing to the biological role of NO° in stimulating nonspecific immunological defenses, one may argue that these lead compounds were deliberately manufactured and used in ancient Egyptian formulations to prevent and treat eye illnesses by promoting the action of immune cells.