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A History of Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Ancient Egyptians, Egyptians, Malachite, Pharaohs

The very first people to use cosmetics, at least that we can tell from archaeological evidence, were the Ancient Egyptians, who were slathering their faces with great zeal as early as 4,000 BC.

The Egyptians were known for painting their lips either a vibrant shade of red or a kind of bluey-black color. It’s quite possible that they used other colors as well, but these ones we know about today. Makeup was used not only for the sake of beauty, but also for the sake of magic and medicine. Colors varied when it came to eyeliner, but generally speaking green was used during the time of the Old Kingdom whereas black came into vogue during the New Kingdom era. The green eyeliner was made of green malachite which was to be found in Sinai or green copper ore. The black eyeliner was made from a lead sulfide called galena and came from Gebel et-Zeit in the desert. Later on, kohl came to be used which was a fun mix of soot and galena.

Blush was also applied during the time of the Ancient Egyptians and was made from red ochre which was clay that was tinted naturally. Making blush involved pulling clay out of the ground, washing it thoroughly and then allowing it to dry in the sun. Washing the clay helped to separate the ochre from the sand and the ochre produced a beautiful effect when it graced the cheeks of the Egyptians.

Henna was popular for both nails and hair and was even used on the toes of Pharaohs before the time came for them to be mummified.

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Unfortunately, many of these cosmetics were potentially dangerous and/or deadly as they contained ingredients such as mercury and lead. However, the lead in their eyeliner may have been used as a tool for ridding themselves of eye infections like conjunctivitis, as evidenced by a study published in Analytical Chemistry. The heavy eye makeup also helped to keep insects at bay as well as help with the glaring sun overhead.

When the time came to apply makeup it would have taken a fair amount of work as it wouldn’t have been in cute little containers like today and made ready to use. There were some cosmetics that were pre-prepared for Egyptian customers, but these would probably have been more expensive. Egyptians would have had a large surface covered with various tools and instruments used to crush and mix things, sort of like a medieval alchemist’s laboratory. First they would have to grind up their cosmetics and make sure they were thoroughly crushed and then mix them up in some type of fat or water afterwards so it would glide more readily onto the skin. Once the makeup was prepared, a wand or stick made of ivory, wood or bone would have been used to apply it.

There are lots of great websites with videos devoted to teaching enthusiastic Ancient Egypt fans exactly how to apply this style of makeup using the tools and makeup we have available now should anyone be interested!

Sources: Hagen, Rainer (2002), Egypt: People, Gods, Pharaohs, Taschen