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A limestone statue of Egyptian queen Hatshepsut

Egyptian queen Hatshepsut is depicted on a painted limestone statue in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, National Geographic Stock

Kate Ravilious

for National Geographic News

January 14, 2010

Cleopatra and her kin knew a thing or two about crafting an alluring smoky eye.

Now French researchers suggest that the ancient Egyptians' heavily painted eyelids did more than attract admirers—they also protected against eye infections.

(Related: "Scorpion King's Wines—Egypt's Oldest—Spiked With Meds.")

Artifacts and documents from ancient Egypt show that everyone, man or woman from servant to queen, wore black and green powders coated thickly around the eyes.

"People wore it on a daily basis," said study co-author Christian Amatore, from the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, France.

According to ancient Egyptian manuscripts, the eye makeup was believed to have a magical role, in which the gods Horus and Ra would protect wearers against several illnesses.

Bacterial eye infections such as conjunctivitus, for example, would have been a common problem along the Nile's tropical marshes.

But previous chemical analyses of powder residue, taken from ancient makeup containers, had isolated four lead-based compounds.

That would seem to suggest that the makeup was harmful, since lead can be highly toxic to humans.

Makeup's "Magic" Required Hard Work

Instead, the new study found that the low doses of lead salts in the makeup may have actually had beneficial properties: When the salts come into contact with skin, they boost the body's production of nitric oxide.

This chemical is known to stimulate the immune system and help fight off disease-causing bacteria.

Based on the amount of the lead compounds in the ancient makeup, a wearer's nitric oxide levels would have increased by 240 percent, the study found.

"Two of these chemicals do not occur naturally, and would have taken 30 days of hard work to make," Amatore said.

"In my opinion, [the ancient Egyptians] were aware that these compounds brought good health, and they were making them on purpose."

The research is detailed in the January 15, 2010, issue of the journal Analytical Chemistry.

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