Beauty Routines in Ancient Egypt

A photo of an ancient Egyptian mirror, with a handle in the shape of a naked woman.
An ancient Egyptian mirror with a handle in the shape of a woman. Louvre Museum, Paris. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Today the beauty industry is worth hundreds of billions globally, with cosmetics ads and beauty tips bombarding us from every angle. While the rise of Instagram beauty gurus and YouTube makeup tutorials is a modern phenomenon, the obsession with mankind’s makeup addiction can be traced back to the dawn of civilization.

A copy of a papyrus painting which contains a depiction of two figures, a man and a woman, standing before a table of offerings.
A copy of a vignette from the Papyrus of Ani, c. 14th Century BCE. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Both men and women wore makeup in ancient Egypt to enhance their beauty and show off their status. Egyptian cosmetics and fragrances had a famous reputation around the ancient world, in places like Greece and Rome.

Makeup was strongly associated with magic and spirituality in ancient Egyptian culture. This was partly because the ancient Egyptians associated youth and beauty with spirituality and the afterlife, but it also had to with the religious significance of certain colours used in makeup.

A photo of an ancient Egyptian khol container with two slots for kohl, and an applicator.
An ancient Egyptian kohl container and eyeliner applicator. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The iconic black eyeliner of the ancient Egyptians was made from kohl, a ground mineral which is still used by women in the Middle East and North Africa today. Green, blue and black pigments were thought to encourage good fortune because they represented growth, fertility, and the afterlife.

Makeup was believed to be so effective at warding off disease and bad omens like the Evil Eye that parents put cosmetics on their children. Cosmetics, perfumes, and incense were so important to Egyptian culture that they were given as offerings to gods or the deceased. Examples of ancient Egyptian makeup tools and even containers of makeup have been found in burials like that of Tutankhamun.

Mineral and ore based compounds were mixed to colour eyes and lips. Ingredients like malachite, galena, and copper ore were ground in palettes to produce eye-popping shades of green and blue.

The ancient Egyptians often used moisturizing ointments or facial creams to protect their skin from Egypt’s harsh arid environment. This was made even more necessary by the harsh lye soaps which were used in ancient Egypt. A proper skincare routine wasn’t just a vanity, it was an important way to prevent damaged or broken skin from becoming inflamed.

An array of ancient Egyptian cosmetic containers, makeup applicators, and ointment jars.
Toiletry Kit of Merit, the wife of Kha, c. 14th Century BCE. Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Moisturizing facial creams were often made out of an oil or animal fat base, to which fragrance and medicinal ingredients were added. Unguents, made out of rendered animal fats, were more expensive and held in higher regard than vegetable oils by the ancient Egyptians. Less expensive ointments were made out of oils like castor, linseed, date palm, sesame, and olive oil.

These ointments were often fragranced with ingredients like frankincense and myrrh which were imported from Mesopotamia and the Levant. The Egyptians also prized fragrances made from flowers like lotuses, roses, lilies, and crocuses.

“To remove facial wrinkles: frankincense gum, wax, fresh balanites oil and rushnut should be finely ground and applied to the face every day.”

Ebers Papyrus

Priests and physicians made special ointments and concoctions to treat conditions ranging from stretchmarks to burns and insect bites. These recipes include many familiar ingredients like beeswax as well as some less familiar ones, like crocodile dung. Many of these recipes have been transmitted to us in preserved papyri. For example, the Ebers Papyrus contains many recipes for medical and cosmetic ointments, among other treatments and remedies.

A painting of an Egyptian gardener using a shaduf, or water-wheel, in a garden with lotuses.
Depiction of a gardener from Deir-El-Medina, Egypt. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

While makeup is often treated as a frivolous or meaningless commodity today, it was given a great deal of respect in ancient Egyptian lore and tradition. Fashion trends and beauty standards may have changed considerably over the millennia, but we’re still just as fascinated by makeup as we were 3,500 years ago.

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