The heavy eye make-up used had medical as well as aesthetic benefits.
Lead salts in the mixture helped to protect against eye disease, says research published by French scientists.
Philippe Walter,who headed a team from the Louvre museum and the CNRS national research institute, said: 'We knew ancients Greeks and Romans, too, had noted the make-up had medicinal properties, but wanted to determine exactly how.'
Contrary to widely held belief that lead was harmful, the team, using analytical chemistry, found that 'in very low doses lead does not kill cells.'
Instead, it produces a molecule-nitric oxide-which activates the immune defence system that beats back bacteria in case of eye infection.
The research was carried out using a tiny electrode, the 10th of the size of a hair, to look at the effect of a lead chloride synthesised by the Egyptians on a single cell.
It is also thought that Galena, the natural mineral form of lead sulphite, was used as kohl and possesses antiseptic and fly-deterrent properties as well as protecting the eyes from intense sun."
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