Amanda Maxwell

Jul 12th 2021

Ancient Cosmetics: More Than Skin Deep


In the modern world, a person’s beauty routine is how they brighten their eyes in the morning or add a touch of glamour for a night out, but makeup actually has roots in practices that were essential to well-being for ancient Egyptians. The ancient cosmetics that once adorned men and women alike did much more than decorate the user. Cosmetics, which were prominent in daily life, rituals and the afterlife, also played an important role in keeping people healthy in the hot climate.

The Proof Is in the Palette

From the earliest era in the Egyptian empire, around 6000 B.C.E (Before Common Era), cosmetics were a very visible part of society at all levels for both men and women. The World History Encyclopedia notes that this continued through to Roman Egypt, between 30 B.C.E and 646 B.C.E.

Evidence of the importance placed on cosmetics has been found in the everyday objects placed in tombs. Archaeologists have discovered ornate jars, palettes for crushing mineral pigments, wig boxes and stylized tools used to apply the cosmetics all buried alongside elaborately prepared mummies. Beauty and cleanliness meant holiness, so the dead needed to be properly prepared for the afterlife.

All levels of society valued these ancient cosmetics, though ordinary Egyptians had much less ornate cosmetic vessels for everyday use. As an Artsy article notes, the stylized tools not only showed class and status in society — they were also thought to bestow the strengths of the animals portrayed on the user.

Ancient Egyptian Beauty Routines

The environment for the ancient Egyptians was harsh. Living along the banks of the River Nile, people experienced damp marshes and arid deserts. This meant that not only was disease an ever-present threat, but people also had to endure intense heat, dust and sunlight. Beauty routines developed to cope with daily life.

A typical day for most involved regular bathing. Washing in the morning and at night was normal, as was washing the hands before eating. Bathing was necessary — not only for hygiene but also as a religious practice. Today explains that it was forbidden to speak certain spells unless clean. Many Egyptians also shaved their heads, preferring to wear wigs of horsehair or woven papyrus, according to World History Encyclopedia. This made it easier to stay clean in hot, humid conditions, and it also reduced lice infestations.

Fragrant perfumes and lotions used to scent the body and dispel body odor also protected the skin against damage from the intense sunlight. Incense pellets were used as underarm deodorants and may have been fashioned into wax cones that melted with the heat to cover the wearer in a scented sheen.

When researchers examined the remnants of these ancient waxes, lotions and pigments left in tombs, they found some surprising concoctions. For example, not only did Ancient Egypt have toothpaste and toothbrushes, but people also used breath mints. Recipes used fragrant ingredients, such as frankincense and cinnamon, along with heated with honey, which was then left to harden into tablets that freshened the breath.

The Science Behind Ancient Cosmetics

The Egyptian word for make-up palette meant “to protect,” according to Artsy. Though cosmetics were valued for their magical properties, researchers have found evidence that the kohl and perfumes delivered more than just a pretty face. Both men and women of all classes lined their eyes with kohl and used other cosmetics. But the reason was for more than beauty — not only was cosmetics preparation done deliberately, but there is science behind their chosen ingredients.

For example, according to the BBC, applying kohl protected the wearer against the glare from harsh sunlight. Discover Magazine notes that it also seems to have antibacterial properties, in addition to protecting sensitive eyes against desert dust and warding off disease-bearing flies.

Finding the heavy metal lead as an ingredient was a surprise. It’s highly toxic if absorbed or ingested. However, analyses showed that galena, the form used in cosmetics, required careful preparation and, once applied, could fight infection. Science Magazine describes how the lead salt was subject to intensive and lengthy production methods, suggesting that the ancient Egyptians recognized its properties. Another study published in Analytical Chemistry describes how researchers applied the lead salts to keratinocytes in culture. These lab-grown skin cells released nitric oxide when exposed to the ancient cosmetic ingredient. Nitric oxide is a potent bactericide and also acts as an immunomodulator, summoning macrophage cells to the site of infection to engulf pathogens. Prepping the eyelids regularly with kohl would thus keep defenses on alert to stop infection instantly and avoid long-term damage.

Ancient cosmetics enriched the spiritual life and helped to ward off disease in ancient times. Aiming for that perfect smokey eye was for more than just looking cute.

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