Ancient Egypt’s Most Indulgent Beauty Secrets

In ancient Egypt, beauty practises didn’t just perform an aesthetic function. Such rituals were laden with social, spiritual, and ritual significance.

Jan 16, 2022By Luisa Hagele, BA Archaeology, MA Int’l Heritage & Museum Cultures

nefertiti bust mirror hathor emblem


Beauty held significant value in ancient Egypt. Both men and women went to great lengths to appear their best, and social status was often reflected in the amount of makeup worn. In fact, statues of the Egyptian gods were adorned with the same cosmetic styles, indicating how beauty may have been associated with holiness. Cleanliness and taking care of the body was necessary not only for good health and warding off evil, but as a sign of humility.


The beauty rituals practised in ancient Egypt were not only aesthetically functional, but held significant social and spiritual importance. This appears to have been the ancient Egyptian’s greatest beauty secret of all.


Hygiene in Ancient Egypt

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


As with any effective beauty regime, basic hygiene was at the foundation of the beauty secrets practised in ancient Egypt. All of the sweat and sand brought about by the dry heat of the Egyptian climate needed to be washed away before anything else could be applied. To achieve this, most Egyptians seem to have bathed in the Nile, although some ancient bathtubs have also been discovered. Some examples are the public bathhouses that have been excavated at the city of Tebtunis, the oldest of which dates to the third century BCE. Here, stone basins, showers, and even a stove to heat the water have been uncovered.


In addition to utilizing sand as a scouring agent, the use of soap was also quite common in ancient Egypt. A paste composed of clay or ash mixed with olive oil could cleanse the body, as well as nourish and heal the skin. Dating from around 1500 BCE, the Ebers Medical Papyrus describes another beauty secret of the ancient Egyptians. A mixture of animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts appears to have been used not only for washing, but also for treating various skin conditions.

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


To keep themselves smelling clean, the ancient Egyptians used numerous perfumes derived from fragrant plants, flowers, and seeds. Their essences were extracted by squeezing, after which they were added to oil to create liquid perfumes. They were also mixed with fat or wax in order to create a pungent cream or salve.


Some of the most expensive and luxurious fragrances used in ancient Egypt were derived from some of the best incense ingredients imported from East Africa. Frankincense, myrrh, and various aromatic woods were likely reserved exclusively for the gods, and possibly the very richest members of society. In fact, according to some inscriptions, pleasant smells may even have been associated with the gods of ancient Egypt.


Skincare in Ancient Egypt

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


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


A hair removal method known as sugaring also appears to have been used to keep skin smooth and hairless. Removing unwanted hair with a mixture of sugar, lemon, and water was a popular technique in ancient Egypt, and is still commonly practised today.


To keep the skin hydrated, a mixture of milk and honey may have been applied on a weekly basis. The use of almond, moringa, and castor oils all over the body was common for keeping skin soft, smooth, and wrinkle-free. Their use would have been an essential beauty secret in ancient Egypt. Excessive exposure to the sun would otherwise have made it pretty difficult to keep wrinkles at bay.


Makeup Rituals

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


Perhaps some of the most iconic imagery to come out of ancient Egypt are the depictions of Egyptians and their gods with dark, 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 blue-grey coloured natural mineral form of lead sulphide. By using a small stick, it could be applied to the upper and lower eyelids. A dark line would then be extended from the corner of the eyes to the side of the face, like that seen on the bust of Nefertiti.


The use of kohl was perhaps one of the most common beauty secrets in ancient Egypt. Not only did it have an aesthetic appeal, but it also shielded eyes against the sun and acted as a deterrent to flies. It even afforded protection against eye infections. While the high concentrations of lead salts present in the kohl can usually be toxic, the Egyptians processed and filtered the materials for up to thirty days before use. This meant that only low levels of lead were left over by the time it was applied, which was safe for the eyes, but still sufficiently antibacterial.


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


To finish the eye-look, burnt almonds were used to paint eyebrows darker, and a green pigment was applied to the eyelids. This green eyeshadow was created by crushing green malachite stone and mixing it with animal fat or vegetable oils. It is thought that the ancient Egyptians used this green eye makeup because they believed it had magical properties. They believed it would evoke or induce the eye of Horus, and protect the wearers against various illnesses.


On the rest of the face, the ancient Egyptians stained their lips and cheeks with a red pigment created from ochre. Made from hydrated iron oxide, a naturally tinted clay, red ochre was mined and then left to dry in the sun. After being finely ground, it was then mixed with water and applied to the lips and face with a brush. It’s possible that the red ochre also provided the skin with some form of protection against the intense, glaring sun.


Cosmetic Palettes From Ancient Egypt

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


An essential element to the cosmetics used in ancient Egypt was their associated accoutrements. Some of the most magical beauty secrets were held not just within the makeup, but also in the receptacles that contained them. Cosmetic containers are among the earliest archaeological finds from ancient Egypt, and have been depicted since as early as the First Dynasty. Jars made of granite, basalt, alabaster, and ivory have been found at sites such as Saqqara. Meanwhile, cosmetic spoons and palettes, such as the Narmer palette, have been uncovered at sites such as Hierakonpolis.


Residue left on these vessels have enabled archaeologists to identify the pigments and compounds used in ancient Egypt, helping us to uncover the Egyptian’s beauty secrets. Their forms and decoration may also have held special significance. Many of the later cosmetic palettes were crafted into the shape of a fish. It is believed this symbolism may have been chosen, because the fish represented fertility, resurrection and new beginnings.


Haircare Secrets

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


To keep their locks silky smooth, the ancient Egyptians applied almond and castor oils. Combs made from fish bones have been excavated from numerous archaeological sites, and were likely utilised to apply the oils evenly throughout the hair. This beauty secret had a dual purpose, however, as oils not only kept hair moisturised, but also may have helped to get rid of lice. The only other alternative was to shave the entire head; a measure also practised quite often in ancient Egypt.


Scraps of human hair discovered in various tombs suggest that the ancient Egyptians may also have had a penchant for wearing hair extensions and wigs. This certainly could have been a means for keeping up appearances if someone had to shave off their natural locks. Wearing beads, flowers, ribbons, or jewellery, meanwhile, may also have been a favoured way to look stylish. It’s also possible that the use of hair dye, obtained from the leaves of the henna shrub, may have been one of the Egyptian’s beauty secrets for dealing with those pesky grey hairs.


Spiritual Beauty Secrets

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


Cosmetics and their trappings were not only utilised for aesthetic purposes in ancient Egypt, but also held spiritual and ritual significance. Animal pigments were often ground into makeup, so as to imbue the wearer with the physical and spiritual powers believed to be held by that creature. Various cosmetic palettes and containers were decorated with symbols and imagery associated with rejuvenation. Even the makeup itself was considered to have a protective function against potentially evil influences.


The meaningful role of cosmetics and beauty was also carried over into death. Burial sites dating back as far as Predynastic times demonstrate how the Egyptians were equipped with beauty tools for their journey through the afterlife. Cosmetics, combs, jewellery, and scented ointments have all been found in the graves of men, women, and children.


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


The imagery presented on mummies and death masks reveal more of ancient Egypt’s beauty secrets. The eye-catching looks often achieved with makeup are depicted on the idealised images of the deceased. Rather than capturing the subject’s true features, they are portrayed with youthful skin and dark, kohl-rimmed eyes.  Furthermore, the mummification process itself followed several of the typical beauty rituals practised by the Egyptians when alive. Unguents used for softening the skin, for example, took on a spiritual significance when used to anoint the deceased’s body.


Challenging Beauty Ideals in Ancient Egypt

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


Given how many beauty secrets have come out of ancient Egypt, it’s probable that the Egyptians may have preferred to represent themselves in an ideal light. Indeed, many of the elite members of society seem to have presented themselves in a stereotypically ‘beautiful’ fashion throughout their imagery. However, as most of us know, appearances can often be deceptive. Nowhere can this be seen better than the few exceptions given to us in ancient Egyptian art that buck the trend.


One particular example of note is the imagery of Cleopatra on her coinage. Known throughout history for her charm and beauty, one would be led to believe the opposite when considering the unattractive appearance featured on her coins. It has been suggested that she purposefully chose to represent herself looking so stern. This may have incited more confidence in her abilities as a leader, as opposed to if she were to appear too feminine.


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


The official portrait of the Middle Kingdom pharaoh Senwosret is another prime example. While his naked torso appears idealised, his face is presented as wrinkled and careworn, and he sports a pair of impressively large ears. However, archaeologists argue that we shouldn’t take his image in the portrait too literally. By the Middle Kingdom in ancient Egypt, pharaohs recognised that they were no longer so easily accepted as god-kings, and that things could quickly fall apart. This is possibly why he was presented as looking so concerned. Plus, the big ears could be taken as a symbol of his willingness and ability to listen to the people. While we can’t know for sure if this was definitely the case, if it is true, then it certainly would be one of the best-kept ‘beauty secrets’ to have emerged from ancient Egypt.

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By Luisa HageleBA Archaeology, MA Int’l Heritage & Museum CulturesLuisa is a writer and archaeologist who has worked for museums in the UK and Switzerland. She holds an MA in International Heritage Management from the University of Birmingham, a PGCert in Museum Cultures from Birkbeck University, and a BA in Archaeology from University College London.