Roman beauty secrets revealed in 1,800-year-old tin of make-up

Its name could have been Maximus Factorius - this was the foundation that fashionable women in Roman London would put on their faces before an evening or day out.

Its name could have been Maximus Factorius - this was the foundation that fashionable women in Roman London would put on their faces before an evening or day out.

Scientists who found the 1,800-year-old pot of white paste made of refined animal fat and tin oxide have recreated the formula. They found that it feels quite pleasant, and contains many ingredients still used today.

However, even in Roman times women were expected to suffer for their beauty. By the time the cream was made, the Romans were becoming aware that the lead used to make face powders white could drive habitual users slowly mad.

But they persisted in using it, and probably thought that the tin mined from Cornwall that they put in this mixture was just another form of the lead they would normally have used to give women a suitably ghostly complexion.

The pot, six centimetres (two and a half inches) across, was discovered at the site of a Roman temple in London, in thick layers of mud preserved under wooden planks. It is the only one ever found with both its lid and contents intact.

Richard Evershed, who led the work at the school of chemistry at the University of Bristol, notes in today's issue of Nature that chemical analysis of the pot's contents shows that the cream contained about 40 per cent boiled animal fats - probably from cattle or sheep - mixed with 40 per cent starch, and tin oxide. Starch is still used today in beauty treatments.

"It is quite a complicated little mixture," said Professor Evershed, an analytical chemist. "Perhaps they didn't understand the chemistry of everything but they obviously knew what they were doing."

The team recreated the cream using modern-day ingredients - starch, powdered tin oxide and animal fat. "Although it felt greasy initially, owing to the fat melting as a result of body heat, this was quickly overtaken by the smooth, powdery texture created by the starch," the team wrote approvingly.

"We're speculating that it would have been some sort of foundation cream," Professor Evershed added. "As far as I can tell, the tin oxide was quite inert so it wouldn't cause any dermatological problems." Indeed it would have been safer than the normal face paints, which were made by dissolving lead shavings in vinegar to produce lead acetate, another white powder.

Francis Grew, of the Museum of London, said that both the tin and its contents were of very high quality. "The cosmetic trade seems to have ranged in Roman times from a sort of home-spun type of thing ... to a sophisticated level," he said.

Professor Evershed added: "It gives us yet another insight into the sophisticated way in which our ancestors used materials from their environment. This is an ancient technology and one that doesn't differ so much from some of the cosmetic technologies in use today."

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