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Danger in the mummy’s make-up bag

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.

"The samples are from containers," he said. "We have never sampled cosmetics on Egyptian mummies because the preservation of the eyes is usually bad and it is difficult to observe if [a] trace of make-up is still preserved."

"We have not studied eyeliners," he added.

Mona Erian, the founder of Nefertari Products, believes the ancient Egyptians only used lead-based color to paint objects, not as cosmetics for human use. She believes the ancients were aware of the dangers of lead and intentionally avoided it when creating make-up. Erian described how she worked on a project to study make-up in the Egyptian museum a few years ago as a consultant for the international cosmetics firm L’Oreal.

"L’Oreal had machines, infrared spectroscopy, scientists," she said. "They opened jars from 4000 years ago that had never been opened. Sarcophagi have kohl, but the kohl from the eyes of a mummy […] there was a big difference."

L’Oreal did not respond to a request for an interview.

Lead is known to be a toxic substance to humans. Many countries have banned its use in products such as gasoline and paint. Exposure to high levels of lead can cause a number of health problems affecting the nervous, circulatory, reproductive and digestive systems. It is particularly harmful to children.

Yet many cosmetics companies still use lead in their products. Nefertari, on the other hand, makes kohl with a recipe still used today in the Egyptian countryside that is free from lead.

"The ancient Egyptians used two kinds of kohl: one for mummies, masks, sarcophagi and dead people," said Erian. "Lead is a very harmful substance to the eye. Because the ancient Egyptians knew that it was harmful, they would only apply it to the dead and masks and pictures, not for living humans. For the living, they were using another kind of kohl made from the gum frankincense […] used in church."

Erian says her company follows a similar recipe to produce kohl. Nefertari workers burn frankincense in a pot and partially covers it with a metal plate. The plate collects the fumes from the frankincense, which forms a layer of black powder. The powder is then gathered and put into wooden jars, which are sold with wooden eyeliner applicators.

Erian said kohl is still applied to newborn babies to sterilize their eyes after birth.

"In Egypt we have a tradition to put it on a newborn baby," Erian said. "The kohl is sterile because it is produced at very high temperatures coming out from the fire. It’s a folkloric tradition from the countryside, but people who are educated just use eye drops [for sterilization] and this is the end of it."

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