The use of makeup and cosmetics might seem to be a modern trend but it traces back its roots to Ancient Egypt.
The Egyptian royalty, aristocracy, and even the middle class considered beautification an integral part of their lives. The Ancient Egyptians did not use makeup only to beautify their physical appearances but cosmetics and incense were used in rituals and had symbolic meanings.
According to the Oxford dictionary, the science behind cosmetics and perfumes was so advanced for the Egyptians that the word ‘Chemistry’ (derived from ‘alchemy’) has its ancients roots in Kemet, the ancient name of Egypt in the Egyptian language.
The ancient Egyptians regarded beauty as a sign of holiness and put makeup on Egyptian Gods too. They embraced personal aesthetics in graves as well. The excavations have uncovered the burial sites with everyday items like combs, scented ointments, cosmetics in the grave of men and women.
Beauty rituals by ancient Egyptians
The most common beauty rituals were carried out in the toilettes of wealthy Egyptian women. A proper skin regime was carried out before applying makeup.
Exfoliating the skin with dead sea salts, having a milk bath, and applying milk and honey face masks were regular treatments carried by royal women. The cosmetics included eye-paints, face-paints, and ointments.
The two most common eye-paints used were malachite(a green ore of copper) and galena(a dark ore of lead). While the woman sat at her toilette before a polished bronze ‘mirror’, the servant would sweep on the rich green pigment using a long ivory stick.
The Egyptian Kohl was used by males, females, and all social classes. The kohl contained smoke black soot which was made by burning cheap kind of frankincense or the shells of almonds. The application of kohl on eyes protected the people from the scorching heat of the desert and dust.
Egyptologist Helen Strudwick writes:
In ancient Egypt, the focus was on the eyes, which were outlined with green or black eye paint to emphasize their size and shape. The ground pigments of green malachite, mixed with water to form a paste, were used until the middle of the Old Kingdom but were then replaced by black kohl, produced from the mineral galena, which came from the mountain regions of Sinai. Significantly, kohl had therapeutic value in protecting the eyes from infections caused by sunlight, dust, or flies.
The red color pigment found in the graves signifies the use of color palettes applied on the cheeks and lips.
The pigment might be naturally occurring red oxide of iron also called ‘ochre’ blended with animal fat or vegetable oil. This red color pigment was applied on lips as lipstick and it is believed that Cleopatra used to crush beetles to get the perfect shade of red.
Sometimes, the pigments mixed with dyes would lead to toxic concoctions and ultimately illness or death.
Perfumes and ointments
The most popular perfume known in ancient Egypt was ‘kyphi’.
It was composed of frankincense, myrrh, mastic, pine resin, cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, juniper, and mint. It is believed that the Egyptians loved sweet, spicy perfumes with long-lasting aroma in the dry and hot climate.
Most of the materials for the preparation of kyphi came largely from the land of Punt. Kyphi was expensive and was primarily used as incense burned in temples or for medical purposes.
The paintings and the inscriptions depict ancient Egyptian men and women wearing perfume cones on their heads during festivals. These cones might have contained incense sticks to spread fragrance in their body using body heat. But there has been no archaeological evidence to it.
Cosmetic palettes and jars
The cosmetic palettes were used to grind makeup. The calcite jars were used to hold makeup, unguents, and perfumes. Materials like glass, gold, or semi-precious stones were used to hold eye-paints and oils.
The physical aesthetics and appearance had a long history from ancient civilizations and Egyptian civilization has heavily influenced the world in beauty rituals and cosmetics.