Skin Care

5 Ancient Egyptian Cosmetics & Makeup Secrets

I have been fascinated by the world of cosmetics for a very long time, and it appears that I am not the only one. Our love affair with cosmetics is almost as old as humanity itself.

Large amounts of red ochre were found, dating roughly from 100,000 to 125,000 years ago during excavations in South African caves – these are presumed to have been used to paint the body and the face. One might say that this desire to adorn ourselves with cosmetics is an intrinsic part of the human experience, as it is a shared practice across different cultures.

From the various looks we have sported across the centuries, the Ancient Egyptian look stands out as one of the more memorable ones in the history of makeup. This is not a surprise, for the Ancient Egyptians were avid lovers of cosmetics, they loved to dress up and wear fancy makeup. Their heavily kohl-lined eyes are instantly recognizable and often recreated in Hollywood blockbusters, the most famous portrayal being Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra.

Earlier this year, I embarked on a project that involved studying Ancient Egyptian cosmetics and subsequent reconstruction of a typical “Egyptian look” from the New Kingdom. 

They had an amazing collection of cosmetics and used to do make-up in the most graceful ways you can imagine. For them, especially during ancient times, one’s attire and appearance mattered a lot; from dressing to cosmetics everything had to be as stunning as possible. From dressing to cosmetics everything had to be as beautiful as possible. 

In ancient times, makeup wasn’t only important for appearance, but also protection. Both men and women used to use various cosmetics and rubbed them all across their skins to protect them from the drastic atmospheric conditions and strong sun. They had different classes and categories of makeup that were used for different purposes and depending on your social class.

However, you could tell who was rich and who was poor by the quality of their applicators and pots. Wealthy people typically had ivory applicators and jeweled containers. Poor people used clay pots and small sticks to apply their eye makeup.

From their hair to nails ancient Egyptian showed their talent in extracting cosmetics and made their era even more beautiful and charming. Beauty and appearance are a major pride of Egyptian history that is reflected in their appearance in ancient times.

So what sort of makeup and beauty items did ancient Egyptian people favor? How do our cosmetics today compare? Keep reading to find out.

#5 Body Skin Care

The blistering sun and windswept sands of ancient Egypt caused dry skin, burns, and infections for its people. Because of this, skincare was an important regimen for the Egyptians.

Body oils were so central to their well-being that workers received them as part of their wages. Both men and women used moisturizers on their skin to protect it from the arid climate. Sometimes people used honey on their skin — both for the fragrance and its ability to hydrate. Additionally, evidence shows that women sometimes used oil to remove stretch marks after pregnancy. And men rubbed certain oils on their heads to stimulate hair growth or ward off baldness. Not so different from today!

Although oils were a necessity for day-to-day living, the addition of fragrance transformed them into luxury items. The most valuable oils were those blended with flowers and other scents. The ancient Egyptians even anointed statues of their gods with aromatic oils to honor them.

Other than mixing it with honey, milk was used on its own in baths. Some historians claim that Cleopatra’s secret to supple skin and youthful glow was bathing regularly in the milk of donkeys. It’s believed that Cleopatra often took milk baths as part of her skincare treatment to rejuvenate her skin.

You can make the recipe with powdered milk, dried orange peel, dried lavender flowers, and dried rosemary. Shake all the ingredients together then add it to warm water in the tub, and soak for 20 minutes, then voila you have soft silky skin. You can use the same method with milk, honey, and 5 drops of pure lavender essential oil.

#4 Eye Paints

Probably the most distinctive look among the ancient Egyptians is eye paint. The Egyptians used both black and green paints to decorate the area around their eyes. The black eye paint was made from heavy metals with high concentrations of lead salts. Though lead can be dangerous, the Egyptians processed and filtered the materials for up to 30 days before creating the eyeliner prototype. The low levels of lead left overprotected their eyes from the sun and boosted the skin’s ability to fight infections! They were also the first purveyors of the cat-eye we all love (and struggle with) so much.

The green came from malachite powder (an emerald-colored mineral). Interestingly, scientists later found that the malachite powder helped protect the eyes from infection — another good reason to wear this makeup. It was also believed to have been evoked from the eye of Horus, and various traditional beliefs, since for mothers using eye makeup for their infants was providing them protection against the evil eye.

To make the paints, Egyptians would powder the minerals on a palette and then mix them with something that would help the color adhere to the eye. Researchers believe they used ointments made from animal fat, judging from what’s been discovered in ancient tombs. Egyptians applied this eye paint using either a finger or a custom applicator — usually a little stick of bone or wood.

#3 Perfumes

Egypt was the world leader in the creation of perfume and was closely associated with the international perfume trade. The god of perfume, Nefertum, was also a god of healing who was said to have eased the suffering of the aging sun god Re with a bouquet of sacred lotus.

Their tastes ran toward things like frankincense, myrrh, cassia, and cinnamon. Artisans would distill these with oils or fats to extract the scent. Using a method called enfleurage, they would soak flowers, resins, or roots in layers of fat. After a while, they’d have lumps of scented creams or pomades. Egyptians would wear these pomades in the shape of a cone on the tops of their heads. As the day or evening progressed, the pomade began to melt and fragrant oil would run down the face and neck, scenting the hair and body.

In another process called maceration, Egyptians heated oil or fat to 149 degrees Fahrenheit (65 degrees Celsius). They added flowers, herbs, or fruits to the hot mixture and then ran it through a sieve. After allowing the mixture to cool, they shaped it into cones or balls. This is the sort of solid perfume we still use today.

These oils also protected the skin against harsh elements like sun and sand.

#2 Soaps

In addition to perfumes, ancient Egyptians also used soaps. They believed that an unclean body with unpleasant odors was undesirable and impure. The soaps they used were not like the bars or body washes we use today. Many of these soaps were a paste of ash or clay, mixed with oil, sometimes scented. This resulted in a material that not only cleaned the body but also soothed any skin disease or damage.

The reason these soaps helped heal the skin was that the Egyptians often used olive oil for their cleansing rituals. Olive oil provides many benefits to the skin and body. It moisturizes and nourishes the skin, rather than drying it out — something very important in a dry climate like Egypt. Also, olive oil contains polyphenols. Polyphenols can help the skin recover from sun damage and stress.

More wealthy Egyptians had several washbasins and water jugs at their disposal. Mixing sand in jugs filled with water and salt helped scour the body clean.

Soap Trick: Ancient Egyptians also used soaps to prepare wool for weaving, making it more pliable and easier to work with.

#1 Henna

Still used today for body decoration and hair coloring, henna is a natural dye. It comes from the dried leaves of a shrub called Lawsonia inermis. Its leaves are green, but after drying and crushing, they form a deep orange-red powder. The powder is mixed with water to form a paste. Henna is a temporary dye and lasts on the skin or hair for several weeks before fading away.

Archaeologists report discovering traces of henna on the fingernails of mummified pharaohs. The henna not only decorated the nails of these members of royalty but conditioned them as well. Henna, as well as being decorative, has medicinal properties. Physically, Egyptians felt henna improved the quality of hair and nails. Spiritually, they believed henna provided good fortune. This belief still holds in many parts of the world — for example, the henna ritual for brides of many cultures.

Both women and men also used henna to stain their lips a deep red. Cosmetics companies offer henna-based lip stains even today, touting the long-lasting effects of the natural dye.

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