They found a 3,700-year-old lipstick with ingredients very similar to modern ones

They found the remains of a 3,700-year-old red lipstick in southeastern Iran. This discovery confirms that beauty practices date back to at least the Bronze Age.

They found a 3700-year-old lipstick with ingredients very similar to modern ones.
They found a 3700-year-old lipstick with ingredients very similar to modern ones. Created with AI.

In 2001, a group of archaeologists who were working on an excavation in Kerman province, in southeastern Iran, found a 3700-year-old red lipstick tube from a looted tomb in the Jiroft region.

This finding explains that beauty practices have been developing since the distant past, and that even since the Bronze Age the oldest societies had an idea of sophistication.

The oldest red lipstick

The piece found just over two decades ago was recently analyzed with radiocarbon dating, a method that uses the radioactive isotope carbon-14 (14C) to determine the age of materials containing carbon up to about 50,000 years.

lipstick from the Bronze Age 3700 years ago
Photo of the finding: the chlorite-shale and its content. (a) the container of carved chlorite containing the cosmetic preparation. (b) an ESEM overview of the composition of the substance. (Photos: M. Vidale, F. Zorzi)

That study revealed that the cosmetic artifact found dates from the Bronze Age and was manufactured sometime between 1936 and 1687 BC, making it the oldest lipstick that has been analytically reported.

This cosmetic was found in a small bottle of decorated chlorite, as detailed in the research work published in Nature.

After almost four millennia, the residue left in the container tube was a fine violet powder. The chemical analysis of this substance suggests that the lipstick contains hematite, known for its intense red color. It was darkened with braunite and manganite and completed with remains of anglesite, galena and other organic substances.

Mineralogical composition of the cosmetic preparation
Mineralogical composition of the cosmetic preparation. Highlighted in false colors, red, micro-stratified and fragmented sheets of pinacoid forms of hematite; pseudooctahedral crystals of braunite in yellow; fragmented quartz particles (gred) in pink. Rare cubic crystals of galena appear in green (F. Zorzi).

The archaic cosmetic also contains vegetable fibers, probably due to its aromatic properties. Deeper investigations reveal the presence of quartz particles extracted from ground sand or crystals. Researchers also suggest that a little shine was added to the cosmetic, although another explanation is that the quartz detached from the decomposing tube.

Lipstick: the same yesterday and today

The research team observed that the chemical composition of this Bronze Age lipstick bears a surprising resemblance to the ingredients of modern lipsticks.

The elaborate decorations in the lipstick container tube (what we know today as 'packaging'), with fine incisions and details, support the idea that those cosmetic products in ancient times were marked, packaged and also marketed.

XRD spectrum: the beaks show hematite, quartz, galene, clinochloro, braunite, manganite, anglesite, brochantite and weddelite. Author: F. Zorzi.
EXRD spectrum: the beaks show hematite, quartz, galene, clinochloro, braunite, manganite, anglesite, brochantite and weddelite. Author: F. Zorzi.

The researchers deduce that, they were probably contained in standard types of tubes with specific shapes to allow easy visual identification, as in the case of contemporary perfumes and cosmetics.

Makeup in ancient history

According to the researchers, the advanced age of this lipstick found is not so surprising, taking into account the long cosmetic tradition in ancient Iran.

For example, eyeliners and eye shadows, such as black kohl foundations, have been identified in the ancient Near East and Egypt. However, the deep red pigments remained difficult to find until the recent discovery of the old lipstick.

ancient egypt makeup
Eyeliners and shadows for black eyes have been identified in ancient Egypt.

Recently, a growing number of analytical studies have focused on late Chalcolytic (Copper Age) and early Bronze Age cosmetics. These studies have revealed previously unknown chemical processing methods that combine ancient metallurgy and organic chemistry.

In fact, it is common to discover prehistoric stone pitchers that contain similar substances in Mesopotamia, Iran, Anatolia and Egypt. Even in South Central Asia, innovative techniques were used to produce on a large scale cosmetics based on cerusite and lead white color.

The complexity of the first Iranian recipes may have been favoured by the greater complexity of the polymetallic outcrops, which mark large geological regions of the central Iranian plateau, they explain from ScienceTimes.

In funeral contexts, the frequent offering of cosmetic bottles to the deceased indicates that it was believed that aesthetically constructed social people survived the physical death of an individual.