Egyptian burial furniture of c2000 B.C. has enabled researchers to
learn a great deal about the grooming habits of the Egyptians of 4000
The ancient Egyptians were like any other civilisation; both men and women liked to make themselves look better according to
their standards of beauty. The result was that both genders wore
makeup when the occasion demanded it and they practised a standard of
Egyptian hygiene based on sound medicinal, therapeutic and spiritual
The contents of the funerary furniture have revealed that like us, they
attended to personal grooming. Egyptians used combs, hairpins, polished
copper mirrors, make up holders, tubes of eye paint, eyeline applicators and other toilet accessories. The containers they used were made from alabaster, wood, marble, stone or reed.
Although the Egyptians manufactured glass, it was reserved primarily for
decorative jewellery, not for objects like mirrors or windows.
Some of the Egyptian cosmetics involved preparation that used animal
waste products such as fly dung, and which we would probably decline to
use. So I shan't be suggesting them on this page! However, as with
recipes for home made natural cosmetic products today, many of the most
basic constituents of the cosmetics were oils, beeswax or other fatty
matter. Powdered ores and finely ground gems such as lapis lazuli formed the basis of colour, dependant on the amount used with a base carrier.
To get the Egyptian look for dramatic or party costumes, try to
capture the elements such as eye make up, collars, amulets and
headdresses such as this one below right of King Tutankhamen's Diadem. It was first
seen when Howard Carter opened the royal tomb 1922, he found the Egyptian king's diadem around the 19 year
old King Tutankhamen's head.
A rearing cobra and vulture act as protective icons and the piece is set
in gold with semi precious gems, carnelian, obsidian and glass.
Eyepaint is probably one of the make up techniques that first
spring to mind when we think of Egyptian faces. Two images flood
my brain when I visualise this; that of the King Tutankhamun (right), and more
recently of Elizabeth Taylor (left) as Cleopatra in the 1963 film of the
same name. Both images illustrate use of extended eyeliner, as
does the image of the golden Goddess Selket shown below right.
In ancient Egypt, Black kohl, lapis lazuli or green malachite were used for this eye
decoration. To copy this for theatrical costume or fancy
dress purpose, we can use modern safe cosmetics like waterproof eyeliner. If you prefer you can use
traditional kohl or a modern kohl based pencil. A steady hand and
a few attempts, should enable you to soon master your Egyptian makeup
The Egyptians either used a simple palette of raw eye powders, or used
ready mixed eyepaint. Raw powder could be added to water, or animal fat
product to make an unguent (creamy paste) before application to the eye
area. They then applied that with a special wood, bone, or ivory stick
for the purpose.
Rich and poor owned the eye cosmetic powders.
But like today, the quality of the tools they used to apply it, or the
containers in which they stored it, emphasised differences in their
wealth. Spiritually, once applied, eye decoration acted as
personal magical amulet against the evil eye whatever the wealth.
If you do choose to use kohl you will find you can buy a modern
pencil version, or instead you can select the traditional kohl with a
small stick applicator. To use it, dampen the stick and dip it in the
kohl powder until it picks up residue. Flick it to rid the excess. Next
with the eyelid almost closed, pass the kohl stick from the inner corner
to outer corner, ending with an upward flick. Residue will
transfer to upper and lower lids. You may need to try this out
several times, but be warned kohl stains the eyelids with repeated use.
Immediate right - The eye of Elizabeth Taylor when made up as Queen
Below right - Modern painting of Cleopatra on papyrus.
Cosmetics giant L'Oreal with the Musées de France Recent have been involved in the past decade with scientific research on the archaeologist's findings. That research published in the world renowned magazine NATURE,
revealed that 400 years ago Egyptian cosmetics were based on the metal lead. The techniques the Egyptians used to prepare cosmetics involved crushing and sieving products for varying times according to
the required end result.
New modern techniques made a fresh approach to analysis possible. In
total the team analysed the contents of 49 bottles kept at the
Department of Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre Museum.
Researchers employed scanning electron microscopy for morphology, elementary
chemical composition and X-ray diffraction for mineralogical
identification. Under modern forensic style investigations the structure
of the exact lead Egyptians used in cosmetics was revealed.
Laboratory investigations showed that the basis of the ancient Egyptian
cosmetics were often grey lead sulphide/galena*, or white lead
carbonate/cerussite**. Black galena has traditionally been used by
many peoples as a kohl product.
Lead sulphide has a cubic crystal structure and lead carbonate an
orthorhombic crystal structure. The two structures used in ancient
Egypt make up were frequently combined in varying amounts. It basically
means that products using the two lead types can be either shiny or
dull. How dull or shiny depends on the crystal, the quantity used in any
one mixture, the light refraction and the reflection picked up by the
onlooker. The duller powders have small crystals and the shiner
powders have larger crystals, meaning that the shiny powders were not as
processed (ground up) as the duller cosmetics. This means the ancient
Egyptians had enough knowledge to create different mixtures of the two
crystal types to generate nuances between shades.
Two other white products found in the Egyptian make up analysed were laurionite and phosgenite. The scientists concluded these latter
products were deliberately mined to make cosmetics. At the same time, the
constituents acted as a bactericide protection against eye diseases in
the hot dry Egyptian climate.
Archaeologists also found a red ochre product that with the addition
of a fatty carrier could have been used to colour the cheeks.
Perfumes were expensive in ancient Egypt, but were of good quality
and made famous throughout the Mediterranean area. Only the
wealthy would have had access to them.
was made using oils derived from almonds and other vegetable oils. To such a base, various plants, flowers, woods, leaves and spices were added. Perfumed lotions and
unguents were made by adding wax or purified fats. The perfumes were
long lasting and Pliny recorded one perfume in his possessions being
just as good at 8 years. Typical fragrances used local and
imported products including rose, lily, iris, cinnamon, orange, myrrh,
frankincense, lime, sandalwood.
Men and women wore wigs on special occasions. In some dynasties
the head was shaved to keep it fresh and lice free in the hot Egyptian
climate. But many looked after their own hair with beauty cosmetic
products that kept it clean and healthy. Henna was used to add
colour over grey hair show. Bear in mind too that most Egyptians
lived only until about their 40th year, so white haired Egyptians were
less likely to be portrayed in artefacts.
From evidence found in mummies it appears the Egyptians had little decay
to their teeth, but they did suffer from abraded teeth caused by stone
grit particles in bread wearing away at their teeth from using coarse stone-ground flours. Refined sugar was unknown to them, although honey was
their main source of sweetener and was used on the face too. For
fresh breath they chewed parsley or similar herbs.
Modern Research into Ancient Cosmetics
On 11 February 1999 a Parisian press release told how the scientific
magazine Nature had published new information about the cosmetics of
ancient Egypt. The joint study was carried out by a team from the Musées
de France research laboratory and L’Oréal-Recherche, in collaboration with the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble. They were able to pool their methods of analysis and knowledge in the
fields of chemistry, archaeology, pharmacology and cosmetics and apply them to Egyptian make up.
* - Black galena is found near the Red Sea and Aswan. It is the basic
constituent of many kohls.
** - Cerussite is used for grey to white make up base
*** - Malachite is found in Sinai and the Eastern Desert and is used for
colouring eye make up, as a paint and also as a gem.
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