Saturday, February 18, 2012

Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt


These pages are edited by Prof. Hamed Abdel-reheem Ead, Professor of Chemistry at the Faculty of Science -University of Cairo, Giza, Egypt and director of the Science Heritage Center

Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt

Cosmetics are as old as vanity. In Egypt their use can be traced back almost to the earlist period of which burials have been found, and continues to the present day.
Cleanliness and personal appearance were highly regarded by the ancient Egyptians. For the priests in the service of the gods cleanliness was strictly prescribed. Not only did they have to wash several times a day, but they also had to be clean shaven all over, to keep at bay parasites, such as lice, eggs of which have been found in the hair of mummies. Water was plentiful, but there is little evidence that the ancient Egyptians used natural soaps or tooth powder. In a hot climate deodorants were much in demand. To repel body odour men and women alike were advised to rub pellets of ground carob(?) into the skin, or to place little balls of incense and porridge where limbs met.

Around 1400 BC three ladies of the court of Tuthmosis III were buried with costly royal funerary equipment, which included cosmetics. Two of the jars contained a cleansing cream made of oil and lime. Some prescriptions for body 'scrub' are given in the medical papyri

The 'red natron' was presumably natron tinted by an iron compound in the earth where the natron was extracted.



A lady wiping her face. Relief of unknown provenance; 11th Dynasty

(British Museum, 1658)

An allegedly successful remedy to treat wrinkles consisted of': gum of frankincense, wax, fresh moringa oil and cyperus grass; grounded finely and mixed with fermented plant juice applied daily.
A simple remedy of gum applied to the face after cleansing had a similar effect. If' the skin was marred by scars caused by burning, a special ointment was used to treat them and make them less obvious, as for example red ochre and kohl, ground and mixed with sycamore juice. An alternative treatment was a bandage of carob(?) and honey, or an ointment made of frankincense and honey.

Because of  their healthy diet and the lack of sugar the Egyptians did not suffer from tooth decay, but their bread contained particles of sand from the grain and grit from the grinding stone, which caused their teeth to become excessively worn. No evidence has been recovered to suggest that the Egyptians used a toothbrush in the manner of the miswak, a natural brush-cum-toothpaste from Salvadora persica, a tree native to southern Egypt and the Sudan. The root has been used for dental care by the Muslims since the days of the Prophet (PPUH). To improve on their breath the Egyptians chewed herbs, or they gargled with milk. Perhaps they also chewed frankincense like their descendants in the last century

As in other civilizations, the appearance of the hair was of paramount importance not only because of the visual effect, but also because of  the erotic symbolism conventionally conneted with hair. Men and women alike wore wigs made of human hair on festive occasions, but they also tried to keep their natural hair in good condition. Jars of what could be compared with 'setting lotion' have been found to contain a mixture of beeswax and resin. These were remedies for problems such as baldness and greying hair. To treat the latter, blood of a black ox or calf was boiled in oil to transfer the blackness of the animal to the greying hair, or the black horn of a gazelle was made into an unguent with oil to prevent grey hairs from appearing. These remedies are slightly more agreeable than another consisting of putrid donkey's liver steeped in oil, though they all had the same magic effect. A far more efficient remedy would be an ointment made of juniper berries and two unidentified plants kneaded into a paste with oil and heated. The natural colouring matter in the plants would rub off on the hair, and the astringent properties of juniper stimulate the scalp. In order to make the hair grow, chopped lettuce was placed on a bald patch, if the baldness occurred after an illness, or the head was anointed with equal parts of fir oil and another oil or fat.

The toilet casket of any man or woman would contain a razor for removing body hair, although a number of creams were sometimes used for the purpose. One such consisted of the boiled and crushed bones of a bird, mixed with fly dung, oil, sycamore juice, gum, and cucumber; this mixture would be heated and applied, presumably to be pulled off when cold, with the hair adhering to it.

The almond shape of the black Egyptian eyes was underlined by the application of black kohl or green malachite. Eyepaint was also considered as a treatment to cure or prevent eye diseases. A great number of prescriptions deal with preventing ingrowing eyelashes.
To cool the eyes a finely ground green mineral (jasper or serpentine) mixed with water was applied to the lids. Alternative preparations were ground carob(?) and fermented honey, or emmer grains steeped in water overnight. An eye wash was prepared from ground celery and hemp.

It was believed that eye make-up could ward off evil spirits and improve the sight. Even the poor wore eye make-up in ancient Egypt. The production of cosmetics during ancient Rome was usually done by female slaves called Cosmetae.


Eyepaint for an overnight treatment made of kohl and goose fat or a paste was mixed from kohl, green eyepaint, lapis lazuli, honey and ochre in equal parts, applied to the lids. The green eyepaint was usually malachite, a green ore of copper; kohl was made of galena, a dark grey ore of lead. It w as kept in lumps in little bags of linen or leather and was ground on a palette to a fine powder. The powder was poured into vases or tube-shaped containers from which it was extracted with a thin stick. It was applied either with the moistened stick, as is done by Egyptian women today, or, for medicinal purposes as quoted above, mixed with some fatty matter.

Malachite was brought to the Nile Valley from the mountainous regions of Sinai, whereas galena was obtained either near Aswan in Upper Egypt or at the Red Sea coast. But both were also imported as luxury commodities from Asia and Arabia. However, no matter which remedy was employed, the Egyptians knew that nothing made the eyes brighter than falling in love: 'Like eyepaint is my desire. When I see you, it makes my eyes sparkle', says a girl in a love poem.

Some Egyptians appear to have dyed their fingernails, but the nature of the red colour used is unknown. It may have been henna. Red was also required to paint the lips. The lip gloss, possibly made of fat with red ochre or with one of the plants used for dyeing, was applied with a brush or spatula. Red colour was used to give glow to the cheeks. A rouge consisting of red ochre and fiat, possibly with a little gull resin, has survived: it was some four thousand years old. Rouge in the form of powder was marketed a few years ago as a product of ancient Egyptian origin. The recipe which inspired the manufacturers was presumably one of those used for the purpose of camouflaging a burn.

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