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The Role of Cosmetics & Makeup in Ancient Egypt

The harsh climate in some regions of Africa necessitated the use of ointments & different cosmetics for both beauty and protection. From the people of ancient Egypt in the north to the Himba tribe of Namibia in the east. For the 21st century Egyptian, the use of cosmetics is optional, makeup in ancient Egypt wasn’t seen as a choice. It was nearly an unavoidable part of Egyptian lifestyle.

Ancient Egypt was undisputedly one of the most advanced civilizations in the World from about 3000 BC. It’s rich heritage and cultural practices distinguished her from other civilizations. One of such cultural practices was the use of body art such as make up by both men and women. Egyptian men were actively involved in self-embellishment (like makeup), a practice more common among women today. The gods weren’t left out as their statues were also adorned with similar types of cosmetics. It is often said that Cosmetics in Egypt is as old as vanity itself. It is believed that ancient secrets of beauty and youth lies with the Egyptians because of the importance they attached to their physical appearance. Typically, the sophistication of adornment reflected a person’s social status but beyond that, it was also believed that it warded off evil spirits.

Power of The Eye

Decoration of the eyes is one of the oldest of Egyptian fashion practices, dating as far back as 4000 BC. Green and black were the most widely used colors. These cosmetics were applied to the eyes to form an almond shape. It is believed that “cat eye” as it is popularly known, originated from Egypt.
Outlining the eyes is seen as a protective amulet drawn upon the skin which can ever get lost or manipulated by another. An unadorned eye was an unprotected eye which becomes vulnerable to the “evil eye”.


History of mascara also has its roots in the ancient Egypt as they first began to accentuate lashes in approximately  3400 BC. They used a mixture of soot, oil and egg white, another equally popular concoction was a combination of crocodile excrement with water and honey for this purpose.
The Egyptians were very creative in designing makeup equipment. The poorer classes used applicators made of wood, while nobles had applicators and containers made of precious materials such as ivory. These eye makeup equipment include palettes and grinders.

Sindya N. Bhanoo wrote in the New York Times, “The elaborate eye makeup worn by Queen Nefertiti and other ancient Egyptians was believed to have healing powers, conjuring up the protection of the Gods Horus and Ra and warding off illnesses. Science does not allow for magic, but it does allow for healing cosmetics . The lead-based makeup used by the Egyptians had antibacterial and it helped to ward off flies. Similarly, the use henna was believed to put one under the protective care of Laskhmi, an Egyptian goddess known for beauty, benevolence and good fortune.

Science does not allow for magic, but it does allow for healing cosmetics

The Science Behind Its Creation

Like most ancient societies, the early Egyptians had to make do with ingredients from the environment; hence, they turned natural resources to cosmetics. Most frequently used were white make-up, black make-up made with carbon, lead sulphide (galena) or manganese oxide (pyrolusite) and green make-up from malachite and other copper based minerals.
Red ochre was ground and mixed with water, and applied to the lips and cheeks, painted on with a brush. Henna was used as yellow and orange nail paint.
Egyptian eye makeup was of two kinds based on its composition.

  • UDJU is made of green ore of copper,malachite from Sinai. Sinai was believed to be under the dominion of Hathor, who was an ancient goddess epitomized by beauty, love, joy and women. She was often referred to as “lady of malachite”.
  • MESDEMET, a grey ore of lead was derived from stibnite or galena (lead sulphide). It was found around the Red Sea coast. It was among the material brought back by pharaoh Hathshepsuf as a tribute paid by Asiatic nomads after he embarked on an expedition.
Ancient Egypt Cosmetics Egyptian cosmetics case_blog.swaliafrica.com_

Ancient Egypt Cosmetics case

Cosmetics containers have been depicted since the first dynasty and are among the earliest archaeological finds. At Saqqara, fragments of a salve chest with thirty compartments for unguents and oil jars were uncovered. The jars were first made of granite and basalt, later of alabaster and had a pronounced lip.

Death: Posing No Barrier

According to Prof. Hamed Abdel-reheem Ead, professor of chemistry at the University of Cairo, Cosmetics were so important to the Egyptians that after death, it was added to the tomb before sealing . He went further to disclose that around 1400 BC, three women from the court of Tuthmosis III were buried with costly royal funerary equipment which included cosmetics; two of the jars contained a cleansing cream made of lime and oil. It is believed that “he who must stand before the gods in judgment must first be pure”. Purity for them meant looking good always.
He added that Men and women in the early Egyptian societies wore wigs for festive occasions although their hair was in good condition. They used lotions to accentuate the beauty of the wigs.

Although the trends are different now and male Egyptians hardly wear makeup and wigs these days, it is believed that the home of all cosmetics is the early Egyptian society. Credit is often given to Queen Cleopatra who is believed to have birthed much of modern cosmetics.


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