Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt

This week I am delving into the world of cosmetics, perfumes and makeup in Ancient Egypt. Now, let’s see how you get glamourous like an Egyptian.

From early in dynastic Egypt both men and women included cosmetic items among there funerary equipment; including oils, perfumes, cosmetic palettes and eye paints. The inclusion of these items in grave goods suggest they were vital tools both of daily life and the afterlife. The images we see on later tombs walls and statues reflect the ideals of Egyptian beauty for both men and women, with cosmetics playing a role in there subjects presentation. In life these tools underlined the sexuality of the person in the eyes of the opposite sex which was then intended to foster children[1]. Within a funerary setting the use cosmetics again emphasised the allure/ fertility of the deceased enabling him or her to under go the process of rebirth.

Figure 1: EA57947 Mudstone (greywacke) cosmetic-palette carved in the form of a fish https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA57947
Figure 2: Polished Mirror belonging to one of the foreign wives of Tuthmoses III , the handle shaped to resemble Hathor. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/548673 Accessed 04.03.2021

Cosmetic Palettes and Tools

Like we do today the Egyptians used a variety of different tools to apply their make up and cosmetics. These included; cosmetic palettes, spoons, mirrors and kohl pencils.

Cosmetic palettes were usually fashioned from siltstone (greywacke) and have been found as grave goods in cemeteries as early as the Badarian period (c5500-4000 BC). These palettes were used for grinding pigments on there surfaces some, even now, still show some of these pigments. The palettes varied in shape and style. Early on in Egyptian history during the Naqada I period (c.4000-3500BC) they boasted geometric patterns morphing then later in Naqada II (c.3500-3100BC) to fish and birds (Figure 1)[2].  The most common pigments to be ground on these palettes were green malachite and black galena both forming the based for early eye paints. These two materials are both found within Egypt; malachite in the Sinai/ the Eastern Desert and galena near Aswan and the Red Sea coast. The pigments once ground then appear to have been mixed with water and later on oils and other fats to form a cream that could then be applied with the fingers. That continued until the introduction of the kohl pencil in the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650BC), I will go into eye paint and its significance a little later on though.

Figure 3: A women applies rouge to her lips whilst using a handheld mirror. Turin Satirical-Erotic Papyrus.
Cat. 2031 Accessed 04.03.2021 http://collezioni.museoegizio.it/

But first, in order to apply these different products you had to me able to see what you were doing and just as today the Egyptians used handheld mirrors. Mirrors have been found dating back to the Old Kingdom (2686-1650 BC) consisting of flat polished bronze or copper discs attached to a handle[3]. From the Middle Kingdom onwards these mirrors take the form of a sun-disc with handles often shaped to resemble a papyrus stalk, the goddess Hathor and female figures (Figure 2). There are a few surviving examples of women applying makeup and other cosmetics whilst using mirror. A noted example comes from the Turin Satirical-Erotic Papyrus showing a women using a thin paintbrush to apply rouge to her lips whilst holding a mirror (Figure 3).

Eye Paint   

The purpose of eye paint was not just one of enhancing the eyes of those who were it, just as in modern time eye enlargement was the name of the game. The materials used in the eye paint also acted as disinfectant and protection from sun. In a similar vein to how American football players use eye black to reduce glare for the sun whilst playing.

Figure 4:
Left: A kohl jar and applicator Metropolitan Museum of Art 36.3.62
https://www.metmuseum.org/search-results#!/search?q=%2036.3.62 Accessed 04.03.2021

Right: Kohl tube and applicator British Museum EA2589 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA2589 Accessed 04.03.2021
Figure 5: The unusual use of green eye paint of the statue of the Lady Nesa in the Louvre https://musicarmonia.fr/index.php/fr/blog/84-archeologie/104-sepa-et-neset-deux-celebres-inconnus-du-louvre Accessed 04.03.2021

The black eye paint that I have been mentioning is referred to as kohl. The kohl was applied early on by using a finger until to the introduction of the kohl pencil in the Middle Kingdom. During this time the types of vessels that Kohl was stored in also varied in from one period to another. The Middle Kingdom and early 18th Dynasty saw a small flatted bottomed stone vessel used (Figure 4 Left) but by the late 18th Dynasty the vessel changed to a tubular vessel, originally formed from reeds, alongside an applicator[4] (Figure 4 Right).

Alongside the Kohl green malachite was used as eyeshadow. However, this seems to have fallen out of fashion during the Old Kingdom and is not widely attested later. An interesting example of the use of this green eye paint can be seen in the statue of the Lady Nesa. She can be seen sporting the familiar black lined eyes but the green paint is shown not on the lids of her eye but is applied in broad areas under her eyes[5] (Figure 5). Other powders used to add colour to the face included ochre for rouge and lipstick alongside henna to colour hair and eyebrows[6].

Perfumes and Unguents

Alongside the kohl, rouge and eye paint the Egyptians also employed a wide variety of different oil, unguents and creams. You only need to think of the legends of Cleopatra bathing in ass’s milk.   

There is an extensive list of different naturally occurring ingredients that these cosmetics are made from but a few include; honey, resins, ochre, copper oxide, manganese oxide and chrysocolla. Honey was applied to the skin to help heal and fade scars, with crushed lotus flowers and the oil from various plants added to make these easy to apply to the skin[7]. The most popular, most expensive and best-known perfume was kyphi; made of frankincense, myrrh, mastic, pine resin, cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, juniper, mint, and other herbs and spices[8]. Lotus scent was also a popular choice, with women often being shown wearing the flowers in their hair. This scent was a simple perfume and was no doubt made through macerating the flower in oil or lotion[9]. In fact, when I visited Egypt a few years ago I bought some lotus perfume in Cairo and it really does smell amazing. In addition to the health benefits of protecting the skin from the sun, these cosmetics seem to have also warded off sand flies and other insects.

Figure 6 Cosmetic Spoon carved of a nude women and lotus bloom.
Manniche, L. and Forman, W., 1999. Sacred luxuries : fragrance, aromatherapy, and cosmetics in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. Page 76

These cosmetics were applied with the hand, brushes and even ornate cosmetic spoons. Although these cosmetic spoons could also have been used to store fragrances in the form of pastes, dry powders or even grains such as incense which would then be scooped out of a large container and thrown into a fire[10]. These spoons were often carved to reflect nude female swimmers holding lotus flowers, birds and troughs, or women in marshes carrying jars of unguents, the god Bes and papyrus fronds all reflective of life and rebirth. A particularly famous example of one such spoons held in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Art which shows a container in the form of a red lotus being carried by a nude swimmer, who some have said represents the sky-goddess Nut, made from ivory and ebony (Figure 6). In addition to being applied in this manner a popular trend in the New Kingdom appeared to be the use of unguent cones. Paint and reliefs from the beginning of the New kingdom show men and women with a lump of solid unguent perched on top of their heads, either bald or on top of a wig[11](Figure 7). This cone would then melt slowly releasing its perfume as it did so.

Figure 7: Sennedjem and his wife Iyinofreti kneel before Nut the great notice the cones of unguents on their heads, https://www.dadandmelovehistory.com/episode-19-ancient-egyptians-cool-or-crazy/82a0ugwzedinfh35tk2wgq1o0qalj5 Accessed 05.03.2021

There is much more to talk about when it comes to the perfumes and cosmetics used by the Ancient Egyptian but if I kept going, I may end up writing a small book. So, I hope you have enjoyed this week’s topic exploring the delightful sights and smells of ancient Egyptian cosmetics.


[1] Manniche, L. and Forman, W., 1999. Sacred luxuries : fragrance, aromatherapy, and cosmetics in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. Page 128

[2] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 243

[3] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 210

[4] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 81

[5] Manniche, L. and Forman, W., 1999. Sacred luxuries : fragrance, aromatherapy, and cosmetics in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. Page 135   

[6] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 81

[7] Mark, Joshua J. “Cosmetics, Perfume, & Hygiene in Ancient Egypt.” World History Encyclopedia. Last modified May 04, 2017. https://www.ancient.eu/article/1061/cosmetics-perfume–hygiene-in-ancient-egypt/ . Accessed 04/03/2021

[8] Mark, Joshua J. “Cosmetics, Perfume, & Hygiene in Ancient Egypt.” World History Encyclopedia. Last modified May 04, 2017. https://www.ancient.eu/article/1061/cosmetics-perfume–hygiene-in-ancient-egypt/ . Accessed 04/03/2021

[9] Manniche, L. and Forman, W., 1999. Sacred luxuries : fragrance, aromatherapy, and cosmetics in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. Page 106

[10] Manniche, L. and Forman, W., 1999. Sacred luxuries : fragrance, aromatherapy, and cosmetics in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. Page 144

[11] Manniche, L. and Forman, W., 1999. Sacred luxuries : fragrance, aromatherapy, and cosmetics in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. Page 85

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