Beauty and cosmetics in ancient Egypt

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The ancient Egyptians regarded beauty as a sign of holiness. Everything the ancient Egyptians used had a spiritual aspect to it, including cosmetics, which is why cosmetics were an integral part of their daily lives. Traders traded makeup often, especially in the upper classes; in tombs, cosmetic palettes were found buried with the deceased as grave goods which further emphasized the idea that cosmetics were not only used for aesthetic purposes but rather magical and religious purposes.

Chemistry of ancient Egyptian cosmetics[edit]

The two main forms of eye makeup were grepond eye paint and black kohl, the green eye paint was made of malachite, a copper carbonate pigment, and the black kohl was made from a substance called galena, a dark grey ore of lead. The malachite was used in the early predynastic period, whereas galena was introduced in the late predynastic period (Lucas 41). Kohl has two components: laurionite and phosgenite, these two minerals were not readily available in Egypt, which means that the ancient Egyptians must have used wet chemistry in order to synthesize them by filtering of rock salt and natron. Facial makeup included stain for cheeks and lips that was produced from red ochre from naturally colored clay that was mined and washed then dried in the sun or burnt to achieve the red pigment (Egyptian Make up). Henna, a naturally occurring plant, was used by the ancient Egyptians to paint their nails, and dye their hair

Medical uses of ancient Egyptian cosmetics[edit]

The ancient Egyptians were not entirely misguided in believing that kohl would prevent eye infections because it actually did prevent an ocular infection that was caused by the flooding of the Nile, the lead-based substances in the kohl promoted the production of nitric oxide in their skin, which helped strengthen their immune systems against diseases ("How the Pharaohs Fought Ocular Infection"). The soot in kohl helped in reducing the damaging effects of sun glare on their eyes, the ancient Egyptians created a remedy for burns by mixing the cheek and lip stain and other remedies for improving skin with red natron, northern salt and honey (Mannichie 134, 138). However, the ancient Egyptians strongly believed that the healing effects of these cosmetics were magical rather than medical.

Cosmetic palettes and jars[edit]

Cosmetics palettes were used to grind makeup, the earliest examples were rectangular in shape and date back to 5000 BC (Cosmetic Palette). The palettes later adopted a rounder shape like the Narmer palette. King Narmer’s palette was the earliest piece of its kind. It has decorations of the King smiting the enemies of Egypt and the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, as well as a cavity for the grinding of cosmetics, making it a double purposed palette, these later developed into fish shaped palettes. They might have chosen the fish shape as the fish was a symbol of resurrection and new life, the fish shaped palettes were usually adorned with precious stones for royalty. These palettes have developed into baboon shaped containers to hold the kohl which held symbolic meanings for the ancient Egyptians.

Use of cosmetics in different social classes[edit]

The use of cosmetics differed slightly between social classes, where more make-up was worn by higher class individuals [1] as wealthier individuals could afford more make-up, although there was no prominent difference between the cosmetics styles of the upper and lower class, noble women were known to pale their skin using creams and powders.[1] This was due to pale skin being a sign of nobility as lighter skin meant less exposure to the sun whereas dark skin was associated with the lower class who tanned while taking part in menial labor such as working in the fields. Thus, paler skin represented the non-working noble class, as noble woman would not work in the sun.


  1. ^ a b [ "Ancient Egyptian makeup"] Check |url= value (help). Retrieved 26 October 2016. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Ribechini, Erika. "Discovering the Composition of Ancient Cosmetics and Remedies". Springer.
  • Chaudhri, SK & NK Jain. "History of cosmetics". Asian Journal of Pharmaceutics.