Beauty and cosmetics in ancient Egypt

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Cosmetic Box of the Royal Butler Kemeni; 1814–1805 BC; cedar with ebony, ivory veneer and silver mounting; height: 20.3 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)
Merit's cosmetic box; circa 1390-1352 BC; wood, paint, faience, glass and alabaster; height: 22 cm, width: 29.5 cm, length: 49 cm; from Deir el-Medina (Egypt); Museo Egizio (Turin, Italy)[1]
Cosmetic box in the shape of an Egyptian composite capital, its cap being in the left side; 664–300 BC; glassy faience; 8.5 × 9 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art

The ancient Egyptians regarded beauty as a sign of holiness. Everything they used had a spiritual aspect to it, including cosmetics. Both men and women wore makeup. Traders traded makeup often, especially in the upper classes. In tombs, cosmetic palettes were found buried in gold 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.


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 galena, a dark grey ore. Crushed charcoal was also used in this process. Mesdemet or kohl was used for lining the eyes and were revealed to bring along potent health benefits in the form of protection from disease, bugs and sun rays.

Medical uses[edit]

The ancient Egyptians created a remedy for burns by mixing the cheek and lip stain with red natron, northern salt, and honey.[2] However, they strongly believed that the healing effects of these cosmetics were magical rather than medical. Surprisingly, there were actually benefits. One of the most important benefits is that the makeup contained lead salts, which, when contacting the skin, caused the body to produce more nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is known to fight off disease causing bacteria. Therefore, the Egyptians were less likely to get diseases or infections.[3]

Cosmetic palettes and jars[edit]

Cosmetic palettes were used to grind makeup. The earliest examples were rectangular in shape and date back to 5000 BC.[4] The palettes later adopted a rounder shape like the Narmer Palette.[5] 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.[6][unreliable source?]

Use in different social classes[edit]

The use of cosmetics in ancient Egypt varied slightly between social classes, where more make-up was worn by higher class individuals as wealthier individuals could afford more cosmetics. Although there was no prominent difference between the make-up styles of the upper and lower class, noble women were known to pale their skin using creams and powders. This was due to pale skin being a sign of nobility (especially in the Late and Graeco-Roman Periods of Egypt) 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 women would not work in the sun.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Campbell, Price (2018). Ancient Egypt - Pocket Museum. Thames & Hudson. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-500-51984-4.
  2. ^ Manniche, Lise (1999). Sacred Luxuries. New York: Cornell University Press. pp. 134, 138.
  3. ^ "Cleopatra's Eye Makeup Warded Off Infections?". National Geographic News. 2010-01-15. Retrieved 2019-12-17.
  4. ^ "BBC - A History of the World - Object : Cosmetic Palette". Retrieved 2018-01-23.
  5. ^ "Narmer palette". Archived from the original on 2012-07-16. Retrieved 2012-05-14.
  6. ^ "Ancient Egypt: the Mythology - Baboon".
  7. ^ "Ancient Egyptian Makeup". Retrieved 26 October 2016.[permanent dead link]

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.