Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Looking Good in Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians invented a whole host of useful products that we continue to use today – from locks and clocks, to plows, paper, and perfume. But because a few months back, I told you about how the ancient Indians invented plastic surgery, I thought this month it was only apropos to tell you about one of our seemingly modern inventions that actually hails from ancient Egypt – eye makeup.

Not just eye makeup but cosmetics in general. Even deodorant.

Personal hygiene and appearance were of supreme importance in ancient Egypt, as much to an individual’s social standing as to what was considered important for good health and good luck. Wearing makeup was also considered necessary to please the gods.

Priests, the servants of the gods, had to bathe and shave several times a day and constantly ensure they didn’t catch parasites or lice from the hair of the mummies they came in contact with. Even after death, one had to present themselves well for Judgment Day. Cosmetics were some of the offerings left in tombs for the dead to use in the afterworld. After death, some ladies of the court were buried with makeup such as body scrubs and cleansing cream, among other royal treasures.

But it wasn’t just the royals, the priests, and, okay, the dead who wore makeup. Even the common man, right down to the poor people, were expected to wear it. The culture practically required it, for both men and women. In fact, the word for makeup also means “protection,” as in protection from the evil eye. Most makeup was made from extracted galena, a bluish-gray mineral that is the principal ore of lead, and applied with sticks. You could tell class distinctions from the kinds of applicator sticks people used.

And while these days, we want our makeup and colognes to smell healthy and natural, not too overpowering, the opposite was true in ancient Egypt, where more was always better. Skin lightening, for example, was popular but it didn’t have to look natural. The whiter or paler the application, the better the look. Many women, not just in Egypt but in lots of cultures, used lead, even mercury, to make their skin appear whiter and brighter. (Obviously, they didn’t know then just how bad those ingredients really were for their health.)

Makeup was also used as a sunblock as well as a disinfectant. Razors, tweezers, and creams were used to remove unwanted hair. Oils and ointments were applied to protect the skin from the hot air. Fingernails were dyed with henna.

Using thin brushes, ancient Egyptians applied black kohl or else green malachite to the upper and lower eyelids, painted on thin lines reaching from the corner of each eye to the edge of the face, and darkened the eyebrows. It was thought eye makeup had magical, even healing, powers, helping to both prevent and heal eye diseases. An eye without makeup was considered the evil eye itself.

Lip gloss made from either animal fat or plant dye and rouge or blush made from red plant dye were also popular items – again, for both genders.

How you smelled was also of great importance. 

The ancient Egyptians rubbed pellets of ground carob into their skin and placed little balls of incense and even porridge to neutralize body odor. 

The first perfumes were Egyptian, and they were famous and in high demand across the Mediterranean in those days, some four thousand years ago. Most of these perfumes were plant based; the Egyptians soaked the roots, leaves, or blossoms of plants such as frankincense, myrrh, roses, almonds, lilies, henna, or cinnamon, in oil, sometimes cooked them, then extracted their oils to produce liquid perfumes, adding wax or fat to make creams and ointments. 

For soaps, the Egyptians used something called swabu (from which the English word “swab” derives), a paste made from clay or ash, mixed with oils and salts, scented, and which could be rubbed in and possibly worked into a lather.

Egyptians walked barefoot so they used clay or wooden foot baths to soak their feet in when they got home.

They produced different kinds of hair lotions using beeswax and resin. These lotions were thought to help prevent, even cure, balding and graying hair.

We may live in a society that places too much emphasis on our appearance, but think how far we’ve come in four thousand years.


  1. This is an interesting post, Supriya. I like the images, especially the Elizabeth Taylor photo.

  2. Thanks, Patricia. It's amazing to know how much we take for granted is older than we realize. Really old!

  3. I'll never see vanity quite the same way again. It's good for our health! Yes, that's the ticket... Though they did get some of it wrong, didn't they (lead and mercury)?

  4. I also read that Turks and Egyptians used Kohl as eyeliner - a black, lead-based paint. Supposedly some people still use it today, especially dancers and performers because it creates the most dramatic appearance. Uh, things we do for beauty! Supryia, is all this from the research for your Cairo book?