Cosmetic face cream used by fashionable Roman women has been analysed by scientists at Bristol University, UK, and then reproduced. The results of this unique opportunity to analyse the ingredients of the 'foundation' cream are reported in Nature this week (4 November).
The cream was found to be composed of refined animal fat, starch and tin. The researchers then created their own version, made to the same recipe. When they rubbed the whitish cream into their skin, it produced a white layer with a smooth powdery texture. The latter quality was created by the starch - still used for this purpose in modern cosmetics.
Professor Richard Evershed from Bristol University said: 'White face paint was fashionable in Roman times and normally derived its colour from a lead compound. A tin compound would have been an acceptable substitute and in good supply from Cornwall.'
As the researchers point out, tin has no medicinal value so they conclude that its function must have been as a pigment. The non-toxic properties of tin would have been a plus, because the health risks of lead were becoming recognized by the second century AD.
The metal container, complete with the lid and contents - the cream - was discovered at an ongoing archaeological dig in London, UK. As far as the researchers are aware it is the only one ever to be found intact and in good condition.