When you picture ancient Egyptian beauties such as Queen Nefertiti or Cleopatra, they’re probably wearing dramatic black eyeliner. Ancient Egyptians believed that eye makeup had properties bestowed by the gods protected the wearers from illness. Modern scientists determined that the makeup contains often-harmful lead, so they discounted any beneficial effects. But according to research published in the journal Analytical Chemistry, the eye makeup may indeed have prevented disease.
Scientists analyzed 52 different samples from ancient Egyptian makeup found at the Louvre. They identified four different lead-based substances, two of which were man-made, not natural. They then applied the substances to a culture of human cells. And the cells experienced a 240 percent increase in the production of nitric oxide, which is known to jump start the immune system.
The ancient marshy Nile would have hosted many eye disease–causing bacteria. Application of the makeup may have revved up cells’ immunity and protected against infection. The chemical compounds were no doubt used initially based on appearance. But then wearers noticed they weren’t getting eye infections. The gods got praised, but it was ancient chemists who deserved the credit.
[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]