As the matrona began her day, a slave girl removed her mistress' night cream, concocted from wheat flour and asses' milk, or crushed snails. Some facial creams were crafted of more expensive ingredients: Libyan barley, honey and narcissus bulbs, and crushed stag's antlers. Some even contained dangerous poisons, like mercury or lead, not only risking a vain woman's skin, but her life as well.
Nero's lover, then wife, the beautiful and vain Poppaea was famed for developing her own beauty cream fabricated from dough and ass's milk. She kept 500 head of donkeys, which were herded along on her travels so she could bathe in their milk!
The matrona then cleaned her teeth with a toothbrush and dentifrice, then soaked in perfumed bath water, which she also might do after attending the baths to counteract body odour. Scents and fragrances were popular enough to draw the attention of Pliny, who carped that a million sesterces were drained away to the Far East in buying scent for Roman ladies.
A masseur, or unctor massaged his mistress' skin with precious unguents, often using a different one for each part of the body. Women who could not afford such expensive scent anointed themselves in olive oil scented with flowers.
After styling her mistress' hair, an ornatrix used white chalk or white lead powder on her and arms, then applied a rouge made from red ochre or the dregs of red wine to the lips and cheeks. Eyes were outlined with Egyptian kohl, powdered ash and saffron, and eyebrows and lashes were darkened with burnt cork.
All these ingredients were at hand in pyxides — vases and jars — on a nearby nightstand, which doubtless held a mirror made of polished bronze, copper or silver, or glass backed with lead.
Leaving out the lead, it is possible to recreate many cosmetics of the Roman period. Take a look at this Roman Makeover by Sally Pointer!
Sources: I CLAVDIA: Women in Ancient Rome, Kleiner and Matheson, Yale University Art Gallery, 1996
I CAESAR, Ruling the Roman Empire , Phil Grabsky, BBC Worldwide Publishing, 1997