Ancient Egypt’s Most Indulgent Beauty Secrets

The beauty held in ancient Egypt was of significant value. Both women and men appear to have gone to great lengths to look their best. The amount of makeup worn often reflected one’s social status. It may indicate how beauty has been associated with holiness, as the statues of Egyptian gods were adorned with the same cosmetic styles. Taking care of the body and maintaining cleanliness were not only necessary for good health, but also as a sign of humility and to ward off evil.

The beauty rituals practiced in ancient Egypt not only had significant social and spiritual importance, but they also seemed to hold the greatest beauty secret of the ancient Egyptians, which was not only aesthetically functional.

hathor emblem mirror
An ancient Egyptian mirror, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Some examples of public bathhouses that have been excavated at the city of Tebtunis, which dates back to the third century BCE, have uncovered even the heat of water and showers, as well as stone basins. Although most Egyptians seem to have bathed in the Nile, some ancient bathtubs have also been discovered. To achieve this, they needed to wash away anything else before applying any effective beauty regime, as the basic foundation of beauty secrets was practiced at the core of hygiene.

The Medical Ebers Papyrus, dating back to around 1500 BCE, describes another secret of beauty from ancient Egypt: a mixture of alkaline salts, vegetable and animal oils. This paste, composed of olive oil mixed with ash or clay, could cleanse the body, heal and nourish the skin. In addition, the use of soap was quite common in ancient Egypt, where sand was also utilized as a scouring agent.

ancient egyptian cosmetic jar
A cosmetics jar from ancient Egypt, 1985-1795 BCE, via The British Museum, London

The ancient Egyptians used numerous derived perfumes from plants, flowers, and seeds to keep themselves smelling clean. They extracted essences by squeezing and added oil to create liquid perfumes. They also mixed them with wax or fat to create a pungent salve or cream.

Some inscriptions suggest that even pleasant smells may have been associated with the ancient gods of Egypt. It is possible that the richest members of society were exclusively reserved for various aromatic woods and the best myrrh and incense, which were imported from the East. Ancient Egypt used some of the most luxurious and expensive fragrances derived from these ingredients.

ancient egypt cosmetic box
A cosmetics box full of beauty secrets, 18th Dynasty, via The British Museum, London

It is believed that Cleopatra bathed herself in sour donkey’s milk as a skincare treatment, as the lactic acid in the milk could rejuvenate and exfoliate the skin. In addition, the ancient Egyptian beauty secret may have included baths into Dead Sea salts to remove impurities, making it possibly one of the most famous eccentric beauty secrets.

The technique of removing unwanted hair using a mixture of water, lemon, and sugar, commonly practiced in ancient Egypt, is still popular today. This method, also known as sugaring, has been used to maintain smooth skin and remove unwanted hair.

To prevent wrinkles, it would have been challenging to avoid excessive sun exposure. In ancient Egypt, the use of essential beauty secrets was crucial. The common practice of using castor oil, moringa oil, and almond oil kept the body’s skin wrinkle-free, smooth, and soft. To maintain hydrated skin, a mixture of honey and milk has been regularly applied on a weekly basis.

Makeup Routine

nefertiti bust
The bust of Nefertiti, 1340 BCE, via Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin

Perhaps, some of the most iconic imagery of ancient Egypt comes from the depictions of their gods and Egyptians with kohl-rimmed eyes. Kohl was used around the eyes by both men and women from all social classes. It was created by mixing soot with galena, a natural mineral form of lead sulphide, to create a dark line that extended from the corner of the eyes to the side of the face. A small stick could be used to apply it to the upper and lower eyelids.

The Egyptians filtered and processed materials for thirty days before applying kohl to their eyes, ensuring that only low levels of lead were present. While high concentrations of lead salts can usually be toxic, the low levels in kohl provided protection against eye infections. Additionally, kohl served as a deterrent against flies and shielded the eyes from the sun. However, it was not only used for its practical benefits, but also for its aesthetic appeal. In ancient Egypt, the use of kohl was perhaps one of the most common secrets to beauty.

ancient egyptian cosmetic spoon
A cosmetics spoon, 18th Dynasty, via The British Museum, London

Ancient Egyptians believed that this green eye makeup, made by mixing vegetable or animal fats with crushed malachite stone, could protect wearers against various illnesses and induce or evoke the eye of Horus. They applied this green pigment to their eyelids and used burnt almonds to paint darker eyebrows for a smoky-eyed finish.

In the face of the strong, dazzling sunlight, the red ochre additionally offered the skin a degree of defense. Using a brush, it was subsequently combined with water and put on the lips and face once it was finely pulverized. Allowed to dry under the sun, red ochre was extracted and produced from hydrated iron oxide, a clay that occurs naturally with a tint. The ancient Egyptians used this red pigment derived from ochre to stain their lips and cheeks, while applying it to the remaining parts of the face.

ancient egypt cosmetic palette
Cosmetic palette from ancient Egypt, 3200-3000 BCE, via The British Museum, London

Egypt has uncovered ancient sites such as Hierakonpolis, where palettes and cosmetic spoons have been found. Similarly, sites in Saqqara have yielded ivory and alabaster jars made of basalt and granite. These containers, dating back to the First Dynasty, are among the earliest archaeological finds from ancient Egypt. Not only did they hold makeup, but some of these receptacles also contained the most magical secrets of beauty. An essential element associated with their accoutrements was the use of cosmetics in ancient Egypt.

The beauty secrets of the Egyptians are revealed to us through the discovery of compounds and pigments used in ancient Egypt. Archaeologists have been able to identify residue left on these vessels, which enabled them to uncover the special significance and forms of decoration. Many cosmetic palettes were crafted in the shape of fish, as this symbolism was believed to represent new beginnings, resurrection, and fertility.

ancient egyptian combs
A set of combs from ancient Egypt, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The ancient Egyptians often practiced an alternative method of shaving their heads, which was the only other option available. This secret beauty technique may have helped them get rid of lice, but it had a dual purpose of keeping their hair moisturized. They likely used combs made from fish bones, which have been excavated from numerous archaeological sites, to evenly distribute the oils throughout their hair. The ancient Egyptians applied castor and almond oils to maintain smooth and silky locks.

Ancient Egyptians, as suggested by various hair scraps discovered in tombs, may have had a penchant for wearing extensions and wigs. If someone wanted to maintain their appearance, it could have certainly been a means of shaving off their natural locks. Meanwhile, it is possible that they also favored wearing jewelry, ribbons, flowers, and beads to achieve a stylish look. Additionally, one of the beauty secrets of Egyptians may have been the use of henna dye obtained from the leaves of the shrub to deal with those pesky grey hairs.

ancient egyptian mummy mask
An ancient Egyptian mummy mask, 60-70 CE, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In the past, Egypt relied on cosmetics and their accessories not just for beauty reasons, but also for their religious and ceremonial importance. Cosmetics were frequently made by grinding animal pigments into them, with the belief that they would transfer the creature’s physical and spiritual powers to the wearer. Cosmetic palettes and containers were adorned with symbols and images related to rejuvenation. The makeup itself was even believed to offer protection against negative forces.

All scented ointments, jewellery, combs, and cosmetics have been discovered in the graves of men, women, and children. These burial sites, dating back to Predynastic times, demonstrate how Egyptians were equipped with beauty tools for their journey through the afterlife. The role of beauty and cosmetics was also significant in the transition into death.

ancient egypt mirror
A bronze mirror from ancient Egypt, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The hidden beauty techniques of Egypt are unveiled through the visual representations found on mummies and death masks. The idealized depictions of the departed showcase the captivating appearances that were frequently achieved through cosmetics. They are depicted with youthful skin and intense, kohl-lined eyes, instead of accurately capturing the individual’s natural characteristics. Moreover, many of the customary beauty practices followed by the ancient Egyptians during their lifetime were incorporated into the process of mummification. For instance, the ointments utilized to soften the skin gained a spiritual importance when applied to anoint the body of the deceased.

Questioning Beauty Standards in Ancient Egypt

cleopatra coin
A coin featuring the image of Cleopatra, 50-49 BCE, via The British Museum, London

This can be seen better than few exceptions given to us in the ancient Egyptian art. However, we often know that appearances can be deceptive. Many members of elite society in this society have presented themselves in a stereotypical ‘beautiful’ fashion throughout their imagery. It’s probable that Egyptians, who preferred to represent themselves in an ideal light, have given out many secrets of ancient Egypt’s beauty.

Instead of appearing too feminine, if she had chosen to present herself in a more feminine way, it might have inspired greater confidence in her leadership abilities. Some have proposed that she deliberately opted for a stern appearance. However, when we look at the unattractive depiction on her coins, which are renowned for showcasing her charm and beauty throughout history, it suggests the opposite. A noteworthy example is the portrayal of Cleopatra on her currency.

senwosret statue
A statue of Senwosret from ancient Egypt, 12th Dynasty, via Brooklyn Museum, New York

If this was definitely the case, then it would certainly be one of the best-kept secrets of ancient Egypt that emerged from the depths. While we can’t know for sure, it could be taken as a symbol of his ability and willingness to listen to the people. This is why he was presented as someone to be concerned about, as things could quickly fall apart. The god-kings, who were once easily accepted and recognized as pharaohs in ancient Egypt, are no longer accepted. However, archaeologists argue that we shouldn’t take his image too literally in the portrait. His face is presented with a pair of impressively large ears and a careworn and wrinkled appearance, while his naked torso appears idealized. Another prime example is the official portrait of Senwosret, a pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom.