The heavy eye make-up favoured by ancient Egyptians
such as Cleopatra may have had medical as well
as aesthetic benefits, French research suggests.

The study, published in the journal Analytical
Chemistry, suggests it helped to protect
against eye disease.

The key appears to be lead salts contained in the
make-up. At very low levels, salts produce nitric
oxide, which boosts the immune system to fight
off bacteria which can cause eye infection.

The make-up used by the ancient Egyptians to
darken and enhance the eyes sometimes took
up to a month to concoct. In theory, because
it contained lead it might actually
have posed a risk to health.

But an analysis by scientists from the Louvre
Museum and the CNRS research institute found
that in very low doses lead could actually have
a positive effect. Lead researcher Philippe
Walter said: "We knew ancients Greeks and
Romans too had noted the make-up had
medicinal properties, but wanted
to determine exactly how."

The researchers used a tiny electrode, 1/10th the
thickness of a human hair, to look at the effect
of lead chloride salt synthesised by the
Egyptians -laurionite -
on a single cell.

Writing in the journal, they said: "In stimulating
nonspecific immunological defences, one may
argue that these lead compounds were deliberately
manufactured and used in ancient Egyptian
formulations to prevent and treat eye illnesses
by promoting the action of immune cells."

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