The ancient Egyptians fascinate us. Our modern culture devotes museums, books and movies to the study and celebration of Egyptian society and traditions. From King Tut mania to Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra, we're obsessed. This is likely because they left behind so many well-preserved artifacts and we have so much to sift through and admire.
One facet of the ancient Egyptian culture we find particularly interesting is their use of makeup. Even for the afterlife, the Egyptians found cosmetics important. It's not uncommon for archaeologists to find small clay pots of makeup in even the most humble tombs. Yes, beauty was important to the Egyptians, but makeup served another purpose. Some of their beautification rituals also helped protect them from the elements -- repelling insects or warding off the sun's burning rays. Many times, the application of makeup also served as a ritual to honor their gods or goddesses.
So what sort of makeup and beauty items did our ancient Egyptian friends favor? How do our cosmetics today compare? Keep reading to find out.
Probably the most distinctive look among the ancient Egyptians is the eye paint. The Egyptians used both black and green paints to decorate the area around their eyes. The black eye paint came from powdered galena (a type of crystal rock). Today, we call the galena powder kohl. The dark lines around the eyes helped protect them from the sun -- similar to why today's football players put black smudges under their eyes during play.
The green came from malachite powder (an emerald-colored mineral). Interestingly, scientists later found that the malachite powder actually helped protect the eyes from infection -- another good reason to wear this makeup [source: Filer].
To make the paints, Egyptians would powder the minerals on a palette and then mix them with something that would help the color adhere to the eye. Researchers believe they used ointments made from animal fat, judging from what's been discovered in ancient tombs. Egyptians applied this eye paint using either a finger or a custom applicator -- usually a little stick of bone or wood.
Perhaps because fragrance was so abundant in Egypt -- from scented flowers along the Nile to imported oils and tree resins -- the ancient Egyptians created a lot of perfume.
Their tastes ran toward things like frankincense, myrrh, cassia and cinnamon. Artisans would distill these with oils or fats to extract the scent. Using a method called enfleurage, they would soak flowers, resins or roots in layers of fat. After a while, they'd have lumps of scented creams or pomades. Egyptians would actually wear these pomades in the shape of a cone on the tops of their heads. As the day or evening progressed, the pomade began to melt and fragrant oil would run down the face and neck, scenting the hair and body.
In another process called maceration, Egyptians heated oil or fat to 149 degrees Fahrenheit (65 degrees Celsius). They added flowers, herbs or fruits to the hot mixture and then ran it through a sieve. After allowing the mixture to cool, they shaped it into cones or balls. This is the sort of solid perfume we still use today.
These oils also protected the skin against harsh elements like sun and sand.
In addition to perfumes, ancient Egyptians also used soaps. They believed that an unclean body with unpleasant odors was undesirable and impure. The soaps they used were not like the bars or body washes we use today. Many of these soaps were a paste of ash or clay, mixed with oil, sometimes scented. This resulted in a material that not only cleaned the body, but also soothed any skin disease or damage.
The reason these soaps helped heal the skin was that the Egyptians often used olive oil for their cleansing rituals. Olive oil provides many benefits to the skin and body. It moisturizes and nourishes the skin, rather than drying it out -- something very important in a dry climate like Egypt. Also, olive oil contains polyphenols. Polyphenols can actually help the skin recover from sun damage and stress.
More wealthy Egyptians had several washbasins and water jugs at their disposal. Mixing sand in jugs filled with water and salt helped scour the body clean.
The blistering sun and windswept sands of ancient Egypt caused dry skin, burns and infections for its people. Because of this, skin care was an important regimen for the Egyptians.
Body oils were so central to their well-being that workers actually received them as part of their wages. Both men and women used moisturizers on their skin to protect it from the arid climate. Sometimes people used honey on their skin -- both for the fragrance and its ability to hydrate. Additionally, evidence shows that women sometimes used oil to remove stretch marks after pregnancy. And men rubbed certain oils on their heads to stimulate hair growth or ward off baldness. Not so different from today!
Although oils were a necessity for day-to-day living, the addition of fragrance transformed them into luxury items. The most valuable oils were those blended with flowers and other scents. The ancient Egyptians even anointed statues of their gods with aromatic oils to honor them.
Still used today for body decoration and hair coloring, henna is a natural dye. It comes from the dried leaves of a shrub called Lawsonia inermis. Its leaves are green, but after drying and crushing, they form a deep orange-red powder. The powder is mixed with water to form a paste. Henna is a temporary dye and lasts on the skin or hair for several weeks before fading away.
Archaeologists report discovering traces of henna on the fingernails of mummified pharaohs. The henna not only decorated the nails of these members of royalty, but conditioned them as well. Henna, as well as being decorative, has medicinal properties. Physically, Egyptians felt henna improved the quality of hair and nails. Spiritually, they believed henna provided good fortune. This belief still holds true in many parts of the world -- for example, the henna ritual for brides of many cultures.
Both women and men also used henna to stain their lips a deep red. Cosmetics companies offer henna-based lip stains even today, touting the long-lasting effects of the natural dye.
Are there dangers lurking in your lip color? Find out if lead in lipstick can cause cancer at HowStuffWorks.
- "Ancient Egyptian Beauty Aids." EMuseum at Minnesota State University. April 29, 2009. (Oct. 30, 2009) http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/prehistory/egypt/dailylife/beautyaids.html
- "Ancient Egyptian Hairstyles." EMuseum at Minnesota State University. April 29, 2009. (Oct. 30, 2009) http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/prehistory/egypt/dailylife/hairstyles.html
- Conger, Cristen. "Why did ancient Egyptian men wear cosmetics?" HowStuffWorks.com. April 28, 2009. (Oct. 30, 2009) https://history.howstuffworks.com/ancient-egypt/ancient-egyptian-cosmetics1.htm
- Dollinger, Andre. "Personal Hygiene and Cosmetics." An Introduction to the History and Culture of Pharaonic Egypt. 2009. (Oct. 30, 2009) http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/timelines/topics/cosmetics.htm
- "Eye paint." The Global Egyptian Museum. 2009. (Oct. 30, 2009) http://www.globalegyptianmuseum.org/glossary.aspx?id=151
- Filer, Joyce. "Health Hazards and Cures in Ancient Egypt." BBC History. Nov. 1, 2002. (Oct. 30, 2009) http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/health_01.shtml
- Illes, Judith. "An Introduction." Tour Egypt Monthly. June 1, 2000. (Oct. 30, 2009) http://www.egyptmonth.com/mag06012000/mag4.htm
- Illes, Judith. "Ancient Egyptian Eye Makeup." Tour Egypt Monthly. Sept. 1, 2000. (Oct. 30, 2009) http://www.touregypt.net/magazine/mag09012000/mag4.htm
- Illes, Judith. "Henna." Tour Egypt Monthly. Jan. 1, 2000. (Oct. 30, 2009) http://www.touregypt.net/magazine/mag01012001/mag4.htm
- Illes, Judith. "Perfumes of Ancient Egypt." Tour Egypt Monthly. Aug. 1, 2000. (Oct. 30, 2009http://www.touregypt.net/magazine/mag08012000/mag4.htm
- "Olive oil polyphenols and antioxidants." The Olive Oil Source. Aug. 20, 2007. (Oct. 30, 2009) http://www.oliveoilsource.com/oliveoildr-polyphenols.htm
- Ruiz, Ana. "The Spirit of Ancient Egypt." Alogora Publishing. Sept. 2001. (Oct. 30, 2009)