Ancient Egyptian Beauty Aids

Egyptians were vain in their appearance. Cosmetics, perfumes and other rituals were an important part of their dress.

The Egyptians thought that an abundance of facial hair was a sign of uncleanliness and personal neglect. An exception to this was a man's thin mustache or goatee. There was no soap so an oil or salve was probably used to soften the skin and hairs of the area to be shaved. Tweezers with blunt or sharp ends were used for removing individual facial hairs.

Oils and creams were very important against the hot sun and dry, sandy winds. The oils kept skin soft and supple and prevented ailments caused by dry cracked skin. Workers considered these oils and ointments to be a vital part of their regular wages such that when they were withheld, grievances were filed during the reign of Ramesses III.

The Egyptians were quite fond of strong scents. A great variety of oils and fats were available for perfumes. The most popular was the basic oil called balanos, among the lower class it was castor oil. In terms of perfumes, a distillation process using steam was probably not used for extracting scents from flowers, seeds or fruits. There were three known techniques for extracting scents. The first was enfleurage, accomplished by soaking flowers in layers of fat. Creams and pomades were created in this manner. A popular form of pomade was shaped like a cone and worn on the top of the head. As the evening progressed the cone would melt and the scented oil would run down the face and neck. The cones would be renewed throughout the evening. The second process was called maceration. Flowers, herbs or fruits were dipped into fats or oils and heated to 65 degrees Celsius. The mixture was sieved and allowed to cool then shaped into cones or balls. The third process, though not used often, was to express the essence from flowers or seeds much like the wine maker did from fruit.

Eye makeup was probably the most characteristic of the Egyptian cosmetics. The most popular colors were green and black. The green was originally made from malachite, an oxide of copper. In the Old Kingdom it was applied liberally from the eyebrow to the base of the nose. In the Middle Kingdom, green eye paint continued to be used for the brows and the corners of the eyes, but by the New Kingdom it had been superseded by black. Black eye paint, kohl, was usually made of a sulfide of lead called galena. Its use continued to the Coptic period. By that time, soot was the basis for the black pigment. Both malachite and galena were ground on a palette with either gum and/or water to make a paste. Round-ended sticks made of wood, bronze, haematite, obsidian or glass were used to apply the eye make-up.

Red ochre mixed with fat or gum resin was thought to be used a lipstick or face paint. Mixtures of chalk and oil were possibly used as cleansing creams. Henna was used as hair dye and is still in use today.

Tattooing was known and practiced. Mummies of dancers and concubines, from the Middle Kingdom, have geometric designs tattooed on their chests, shoulders and arms. In the New Kingdom, tattoos of the god Bes could be found on the thighs of dancers, musicians and servant girls.

Wigs and hairpieces were also quite popular. They were quite elaborate and usually made of human hair. Other tools used in the beauty ritual that have been found include short fine tooth combs, hair pins, and a small bronze implement with a pivoting blade thought to be a hair curler.


Stead, Miriam. Egyptian Life. British Museum Publications, London, England, 1986

Ruffle, John. The Egyptians. Cornell University Press, Ithica, NY, 1977

Cheryl Dawley

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