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The Role of Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt


It is strange to think that the production and use of cosmetics in ancient Egypt were present since the very beginning of forming the kingdom, but then "cosmetics are as old as vanity" and there is nothing peculiar about vanity being present even so far in the past (Lucas, 1930, p. 41). The oldest tombs and burial places contained remains of such things as jars with ointments and utensils for applying makeup, suggesting the vital importance these objects had in everyday life that they were necessary enough to accompany the deceased in the afterlife. When contemplating cosmetics in Antiquity, it is easy to envision a portrayal of a movie version of Cleopatra with thick black eyeliner and cobalt blue eye shadow. But cosmetics had a much broader function in the society of Egypt than just being a tool for making someone look appealing. The role of cosmetics extended deep into the everyday routines and procedures related to looks, health, religion, and burial rituals. It is crucial to understand how the same ingredients used for the production of face creams were utilized in the sphere of medicine and religious life, and that there is more worth in the alchemic processes pioneered by Egyptians other than transforming an individual into a thing of beauty.


Taking care of the cleanliness of the body was a societal norm in Ancient Egypt. It was not reserved just for the upper class, as being unkept was not approved in any Egyptian social circle. The lower social class would bathe in rivers or canals, but wealthier Egyptians had access to private baths and showers, and scented natron soap was a standard hygiene product (Raafat El-Sayed & El-Din Fouad, 2020, p. 52). The highest hygiene requirements referred to the priesthood, but everyone needed to adhere to certain norms to enter a temple (Teeter, 2000, p. 160). Bathing every day, shaving the hair as protection from lice infestation, and applying creams to protect the skin from the scorching sun were part of the daily routines for all Egyptians. There were different standards regarding the quality of the ointments or makeup, depending on how exclusive the ingredients were, but everyone could afford the essential hygiene products.


cosmetic spoon from ancient Egypt shaped in the silhouette of a woman with black hair lying down holding a large jar with an animal head attached to a lid

Figure 1: Cosmetic spoon used for application of cosmetics (ca. 1390-1352 BC).


A typical Egyptian vanity consisted of eye paint, face paint, oils, and various creams made of solid fats. Alfred Lucas (1930), an Egyptian-based English analytical chemist and archaeologist, who wrote extensively about Egyptian cosmetics and their composition, describes malachite and galena as the most prevalent eye paints in ancient Egypt (p 41). Malachite, the oldest form of eye paint made out of a green ore of copper, is mentioned from the Early Predynastic Period (c. 5000 BC) onward, and galena or kohl, made out of dark grey ore, became widely popular from the Late Predynastic Period (c. 3000 BC). Lucas suggests that a red pigment found in the graves on pallets, made out of naturally occurring red ochre, was used as blush or face paint (p. 44). Oils and fats were essential to the cosmetic ritual, as Egyptians needed to protect their skin from a dry climate. In modern-day Nubia, Sudan, and other parts of Africa, oils are still used to hydrate the skin. The poorer classes in ancient Egypt likely had more access to castor oil, which was abundantly growing in the surroundings, as it is native to subtropical Africa (Lucas, p. 44). Unguents, or ointments, were made out of animal fat mixed with water and resin gum, and sometimes they were perfumed by soaking aromatic plants so the smell would transfer (Raafat El-Sayed&El-Din Fouad, 2020, p. 53). Pliny the Elder (77 AD), an ancient Roman author and naturalist, wrote extensively in his work The Natural History about the skill of Egyptians who made unusual unguents with the use of oil of ben, oil of bitter almonds, cardamoms, honey, wine, and turpentine resin. They were used not only for hydrating the skin but also on the hair and scalp to prevent hair from turning gray or falling out (Dawson, 1927, p. 279).


Of all the products mentioned earlier that were important in personal hygiene and the beautifying process, ointments were the ones that had a chief role in medical applications. The recipes for ointments used in medical treatments included hundreds of ingredients derived from animals, plants, and minerals. Though many ingredients are known today as having healing properties, some seem to be included only because of religious associations. Ingredients listed for prescriptions were peculiar from today's perspective, consisting of items like "fat of the ox, ass, lion, hippopotamus, mouse, bat, frog, lizard, snake [and] tortoiseshell, and calcined horns, hides, bones, and hoofs" (Dawson, 1927, p. 283). Most credible sources that describe the medicinal purpose of ointments are from the many medical papyri discovered, like the Ebers Papyrus, that describe diseases, possible causes, diagnoses, and prescriptions with instructions on how to use the prescribed drugs (Dawson, p. 276). There would be clear instructions for the preparations of the medicines: if they were to be crushed or ground, boiled or warmed, how cool they should be, and how and when they should be applied (Dawson, p. 283). Although this can make an impression that medicine was remarkably advanced, some authors, like American Egyptologist John Albert Wilson (1962), are somewhat skeptical about how advanced medical treatment was and argue that some enthusiastic scholars gave ancient Egyptians more credit than they deserved (p. 115). The prevalence of the influence of magic and the use of incantations were more dominant than the medical procedures, as religion and mysticism strongly influenced how Egyptians interpreted diseases. Nonetheless, when the cause of an injury was apparent, ancient Egyptians did manage to find an application for natural remedies in ointments. Further, because of the high hygiene standard, some infections were decreased.


Ancient Egyptian drawing with three people preparing a fourth person for a funeral surrounded by hieroglyphics

Figure 2: Scene from a coffin that illustrates a priest with an incense burner performing a funerary ritual (c. 976-889 BC)


Even though cosmetics were intended to keep a person healthy, cure them if they were sick, and played a role in beautification, perhaps the most exhaustive utilization of cosmetics followed rituals for preparation in the afterlife. Death had a distinctive role in the culture of Ancient Egypt. After all, it is not a coincidence that the most significant part of the physical evidence from this period that historians study today survived in tombs and burial places for millennia. Two crucial points related to the burial process closely related to cosmetics are the embalming procedure and the adornment of the deceased's final resting place. The embalming process was an essential part of the preparation for burial, and it was performed by a professional in a specialized mortuary workshop. Some inscriptions, like the one from the tomb of Queen Meresankh (Old Kingdom, 2575-2125 BC), reveal the time between the moment of death to the funeral, which could sometimes last up to 272 days. This was also related to the status of the deceased (Wilson, 1944, p. 202). The inscriptions from several tombs speak of different kinds of ointments used for the procedure: "ointment of Residence" or "festival ointment from the embalming place"(Wilson, p. 202). Ointments used in the embalming process consisted of mixtures of animal fat, honey, and resin with herbs like myrrh, cedar, cinnamon, and pine to suppress the smell of the body. Text on Rhyn Papyrus tells of body cavities filled with cedar oil, resin, mild ox fat, myrrh, and cinnamon oil (Baumann, 1960, p. 85).


The Egyptians considered the afterlife a continuation of existence and paid great attention to what was to accompany the deceased as part of the grave goods. Artifacts placed in the tomb were objects that represented afterlife provisions and something that the person enjoyed using. Items used for personal care, such as cosmetics or vanity objects, were an inevitable part of the grave goods. Traces of both malachite and galena eye paints were set in the tombs of the deceased and were placed in linen bags in the form of raw material, powder, or dried-up cream in small cosmetic jars or as stains on pallets and stones used for crushing pigment (Lucas, 1930, p. 41). Elaborate boxes intended to keep the utensils for applying makeup, spoons carved out of precious stones, or cosmetic grinding slabs were also found in tombs, which supports the idea of how vital self-care was in ancient Egypt.


Brown toilet box from ancient Egypt with white stripes on the lid and small circles of brown on the white stripes

Figure 3: Toilet box (650-350 BC).


The abundance of recorded evidence on how ancient Egypt used simple ingredients and repurposed them in many different ways speaks to how developed the culture was. The recipes used millennia ago could still be implemented today because of ancient Egyptians' knowledge about the properties of the ingredients. Later cultures heavily utilized all this knowledge, especially conquerors of Ancient Egypt like the Greeks and Romans, who made significant discoveries in the pharmaceutical and medical fields of study. Ancient Egyptians saw the potential of applications of cosmetics in all imaginable spheres of life, generously including all brackets of society. Over the centuries, cosmetics enhanced ancient Egyptians' lives by making them more beautiful, improving their health, and at the very end, helping their earthly bodies transition to the afterlife, where their favorite objects waited for them in the eternal house.


Bibliographical References

Baumann, Bill B. (1960). The botanical aspects of Ancient Egyptian embalming and burial. Economic Botany, 14(1), 84–104. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4252139


Dawson, W. R. (1927). The beginnings of medicine: Medicine and surgery in Ancient Egypt. Science Progress in the Twentieth Century (1919-1933), 22(86), 275–284. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43430010


Frangié-Joly, D. (2016). Perfumes, aromatics, and purple dye: Phoenician trade and production in the Greco-Roman period. Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology & Heritage Studies, 4(1), 36–56. https://doi.org/10.5325/jeasmedarcherstu.4.1.0036


Lucas, A. (1930). Cosmetics, perfumes and incense in Ancient Egypt. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 16(1/2), 41–53. https://doi.org/10.2307/3854332


Pliny, the Elder. (1855) The Natural History (J. Bostock, H.t. Riley, Trans.). Perseus Digital Library http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:abo:phi,0978,001:13 (Original work published 77 AD).


Raafat El-Sayed, M. M., & El-Din Fouad, R. A. (2020). An insight into an Egyptian intangible cultural heritage tradition: The hammām. International Journal of Heritage and Museum Studies, 2(1), 51-67. https://ijhms.journals.ekb.eg/article_188742.html


Silverman, D. P. (2003). Ancient Egypt (US edition). Oxford University Press.


Teeter, E. (2000). The body in Ancient Egyptian texts and representations (Plate 6). The Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, 37(1/4), 149–170. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24519690


Veiga, P. (2009). Health and medicine in Ancient Egypt: Magic and science. Bar Archaeopress. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/215521600_Health_and_Medicine_in_Ancient_Egypt_Magic_and_Science


Wilson, J. A. (1944). Funeral services of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 3(4), 201–218. https://www.jstor.org/stable/542993?searchText=funeral+services


Wilson, J. A. (1962). Medicine in Ancient Egypt. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 36(2), 114-123. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44449784

Visual Sources

Cover image: LotusArt. (n.d.). [Digital artwork of Cleopatra]. Retrieved from: https://cgsociety.org/c/featured/cfhm/cleopatra


Figure 1: Cosmetic spoon in the shape of swimming woman holding a dish [Photograph]. (ca. 1390-1352 BC). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, United States. https://jstor.org/stable/community.18427665


Figure 2: Panel from the coffin of Amenemope [Photograph]. (ca. 976-889 BC). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, United States. https://jstor.org/stable/community.24570901


Figure 3: Toilet box, Ancient Egyptian [Photograph]. (650-350 BC). Open Science Museum Group, London, UK. https://jstor.org/stable/community.24786406





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Marija Pejic Zivanovic

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