Beauty, Cosmetics, Tattoos and Perfumes in Ancient Egypt

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modern painting of an Ancient
Egyptian woman applying cosmetics
Egyptians appeared to care a great deal about the way they looked. Pharaohs had their own hairdressers and manicurists and cosmetics was big business. Archaeologists have unearthed mirrors, hairpins, make up containers, brushes and other items. Egyptians took a lot of cosmetics and beauty aids with them to the grave which is why we have so much of the stuff today. Apparently they wanted to look good in the afterlife.

Cosmetic surgery was present. The Papyrus Ebers provided tips on fixing up noses, ears and other body parts disfigured by warfare or accidents. Childhood skull shaping was practiced by Egyptians as it was by Minoans, ancient Britons, Mayas and New Guinean tribes. A number of anti-wrinkle remedies were available.

Make-up was applied daily to statues of gods along with offerings of food. Sometimes people painted their entire face green or black to resembled the protective eye of the god Horus. On special occasions ancient Egyptians wore greasy cones of fragrance on their head that melted in the heat and dripped perfume on their wigs.

Alastair Sooke wrote for the BBC: “Ancient Egyptians of both sexes apparently went to great lengths to touch up their appearance. Moreover, this was just as true in death as it was in life: witness the smooth, serene faces, with regular features and prominent eyes emphasised by dramatic black outlines, typically painted onto cartonnage mummy masks and wooden coffins. “The more I try to understand what the Egyptians themselves understood as ‘beautiful’”, says Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley, “the more confusing it becomes, because everything seems to have a double purpose. When it comes to ancient Egypt, I don’t know if ‘beauty’ is the right word to use.” [Source: Alastair Sooke, BBC, February 4, 2016. Sooke is Art Critic of The Daily Telegraph |::|]

“To complicate matters further, there are eye-catching exceptions to the general rule whereby elite ancient Egyptians presented themselves in a stereotypically ‘beautiful’ fashion. Consider the official portraiture of the Middle Kingdom pharaoh Senusret III. Although his naked torso is athletic and youthful – idealised, in line with earlier royal portraits – his face is careworn and cracked with furrows. Moreover his ears, to modern viewers, appear comically large – hardly an attribute, you would think, of male beauty. |::|

“Yet, in ancient Egypt, the effect wouldn’t have been funny. “In the Old Kingdom, kings were god-kings,” explains Tyldesley, who is a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester. “But by the Middle Kingdom, kings [such as Senusret] recognised that things could crumble and go wrong, which is why they look a bit worried. The big ears are telling us that this king will listen to the people. It would be wrong to take his portrait literally and say he looked like this.” |::|

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Discovering Egypt; BBC History: Egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt; Egypt’s Golden Empire; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt; Ancient Egypt Magazine; Egypt Exploration Society ; Amarna Project; Egyptian Study Society, Denver; The Ancient Egypt Site; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East; Egyptology Resources

Appearance in Ancient Egypt

Queen Nodjmet

Christina Riggs of the University of East Anglia wrote:“Bodily modifications, appearance, and grooming were part of the social construction of identity. The ideal elite adult body was clean, well cared for, and scented, with firm musculature for men and slender yet fecund proportions for women. The king’s own body exemplified the ideal male form at all periods. Although most of the mummies thought to be those of kings were not circumcised, male circumcision was practiced (probably around the onset of puberty) to some extent. There is no clear evidence for female circumcision (excision) during the Pharaonic Period, though there may be some indications for the practice, in particular from the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. Male circumcision was one of a number of practices related to priestly service, all of which were concerned with purity. Other requirements included washing, cleaning the mouth, shaving body hair, abstaining from sexual activity, and adhering to dietary restrictions. [Source: Christina Riggs, University of East Anglia, UK, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

“In art, men were depicted as slightly larger than women of equal status, and women tended to be depicted with proportions different from those of men, with a shorter spinal column in relation to the buttocks and legs. Signs of status and age could be depicted through the body in limited ways, according to accepted conventions: thus older men might have lined faces or thickened bellies, while women’s bodies tended to retain their ideal, slender shape. Both sexes dressed their hair in braids or covered it with wigs and hairpieces. Hairstyles changed with fashion over time, and men sometimes wore trimmed facial hair, such as a thin mustache or a short goatee beard. In some Ramesside tomb paintings, older men and women have white hair . Elite women’s hair was usually long and full, and often worn in tight braids.

“In the vast majority of visual representations, only lower-status figures are shown with paunches, poor posture, creased or snub-nosed faces, or (for men) receding hairlines. Lower-status female figures such as musicians and dancers may bear tattoos and are almost nude, with distinctive hairstyles that set them apart from elite women. Their bodies may likewise adopt more informal postures and gestures, sometimes incorporating rear or frontal views. The same holds true for male and female mourners, whether members of the deceased’s family, household dependants, or paid performers; their gestures, disarrayed hair and clothing, and (for men) unshaven heads and faces mark them out. For both the elite and lower-status figures, expressive gestures were important carriers of meaning, and may be identified in pictorial representation through poses of prayer and begging or supplication.

20120216-Maler_der_Grabkammer_des_User.jpg"Figures with dysmorphic bodies—achondroplastic dwarves, or people with signs of illness or injury—appear in a few more elite instances, representing named individuals. In the Old Kingdom, the dwarf Seneb is one of a number of such individuals represented in art, attesting to the symbolic and social roles attached to dwarfism. The New Kingdom stela of a minor official named Roma represents him leaning on a staff with a withered leg, perhaps evidence of an injury or an illness such as poliomyelitis . The “queen of Punt” relief from Deir el-Bahri depicts a morbidly obese woman, which may reflect the appearance of an actual individual but also fits the trope of assigning stereotypical features to the faces and bodies of non-Egyptians.”

Women's Beauty in Ancient Egypt

Egyptian women had make-up tables and a variety of application spoons, vases, flacons, unguents and boxes of eye shadow. They massaged themselves with scented oils, anointed their bodies with animal fat mixed with frankincense, cinnamon and juniper; whitened their faces with cerussite; painted their lips with a brush;

Beauty shops and perfume factories existed in ancient Egypt. The use of make up was common as early as 4000 B.C. The favorite color of eye make-up was green; the favorite shade of lipstick was blue-black. Cheeks were rouged and lips, nails, fingers and feet were stained with henna. No one has yet found an samples of ancient lipstick.

Women also had their fingernails manicured, shaved their eyebrows, applied false eyebrows and red cheek rouge, painted their nails and toenails ruby red, washed their hair, and used kohl (black eye paint). Some adorned their nipples with gold and outlined the veins on their breasts with blue.

Nefertiti’s Bust and Egyptian Beauty

Nefertiti's bust

Nefertiti is perhaps the best known queen of Egypt. She is depicted in more sculpture and artwork than her husband, King Akhenaten. Dr Kate Spence of Cambridge University wrote for the BBC: “Akhenaten's 'great king's wife' was Nefertiti and they had six daughters. There were also other wives, including the enigmatic Kiya who may have been the mother of Tutankhamun." Nefertiti is thought to have been a princess from Mitanni (a Hurrian-speaking state in northern Syria and southeast Anatolia). She initially encouraged and supported her husband in with his revolutionary religious views but later appeared to have a falling out with him perhaps over the same views. [Source: Dr Kate Spence, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

The famous bust of Nefertiti is shown above. Joyce Tyldesley, professor at the University of Manchester and author of a biography about Cleopatra, told the BBC: Nefertiti’s bust is not typical of ancient Egyptian art: “It’s an unusual statue in that it’s got all the plaster on and it’s colourful – a lot of the artwork we have is more stereotyped and less personal-looking than that.”[Source: Alastair Sooke, BBC, February 4, 2016. Sooke is Art Critic of The Daily Telegraph |::|]

Alastair Sooke wrote for the BBC: “The moment when the bust was unveiled in Berlin – in 1923 – was crucial to its reception. ‘Egyptomania’ was in the air, following the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun the previous year, and Nefertiti’s angular, geometric appearance chimed with fashionable taste. “She’s very modern-looking, very Art Deco,” says Tyldesley. “So everybody seemed to like her. It’s hard to find anybody who didn’t think that Nefertiti was beautiful.” |::|

“During the ’20s, the bust of Nefertiti also benefited from the power of the mass media to turn her into a star. “A hundred years earlier, without newspapers or the cinema, that wouldn’t have happened,” says Tyldesley. “She would have gone into a museum and nobody would have made the fuss they did. I wonder whether the fact that Nefertiti was put on display in Berlin as a major find actually influenced what we saw. After all, beauty, as we know, is in the eye of the beholder.” “|::|

Cleopatra and Beauty

Since ancient times, Cleopatra has been regarded as a paragon of beauty. Plutarch wrote: "Her beauty was not incomparable” but “the attraction of her conversation...was something bewitching...The persuasiveness of her discourse and her character...had something stimulating about it. It was a pleasure merely to hear her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to the next...Plato admits four sorts of flattery but she has a thousand." Another historian described her countenance as "alive rather than beautiful."


The 2nd century Greek historian said that Cleopatra seduced men because she was "brilliant to look upon...with the power to subjugate everyone." She would later become "a woman of insatiable sexuality and insatiable avarice" (Dio), "the whore of the eastern kings" (Boccaccio). She was a carnal sinner for Dante, for Dryden a poster child for unlawful love. A first-century A.D. Roman would falsely assert that "ancient writers repeatedly speak of Cleopatra's insatiable libido." Florence Nightingale referred to her as "that disgusting Cleopatra." Offering Claudette Colbert the title role in the 1934 movie, Cecile B. DeMille is said to have asked, "How would you like to be the wickedest woman in history?" [Source: Stacy Schiff, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010, Adapted from Cleopatra: A Biography, by Stacy Schiff]

Images close to her time contradict the notion that she a great beauty. The pictures of Cleopatra depicted on Roman coins shows a woman with a large hooked Semitic nose, sharp chin, boney face, narrow forehead and large eyes. Stacy Schiff wrote in her book Cleopatra: A Biography, “If the name is indelible, the image is blurry. She may be one of the most recognizable figures in history, but we have little idea what Cleopatra actually looked like. Only her coin portraits — issued in her lifetime, and which she likely approved — can be accepted as authentic." Cleopatra herself claimed pickles made her beautiful

Joyce Tyldesley, professor at the University of Manchester and author of a biography about Cleopatra, told the BBC: “Cleopatra has given us the idea that ancient Egyptian women were all beautiful, but we don’t actually know what she looked like.” In her coinage, “Cleopatra had a big nose, a protruding chin, and wrinkles – not what most people would call beautiful. You could argue that she appeared on her coins like that on purpose, because she wanted to look stern, and not particularly feminine. But even Plutarch, who never met her either, said that her beauty was in her vivacity and her voice, and not in her appearance. Yet we have decided that she was beautiful and that she has to look like Elizabeth Taylor. I think that the idea of Cleopatra, rather than Cleopatra herself, has influenced us.” [Source: Alastair Sooke, BBC, February 4, 2016]

Beauty Aids in Ancient Egypt

Cheryl Dawley of Minnesota State University, Mankato, wrote: “Egyptians were vain in their appearance. Cosmetics, perfumes and other rituals were an important part of their dress. Red ochre mixed with fat or gum resin was thought to be used a lipstick or face paint. Mixtures of chalk and oil were possibly used as cleansing creams. Henna was used as hair dye and is still in use today. [Source: Cheryl Dawley, Minnesota State University, Mankato, +]

Toilet box and various vessels
“Oils and creams were very important against the hot sun and dry, sandy winds. The oils kept skin soft and supple and prevented ailments caused by dry cracked skin. Workers considered these oils and ointments to be a vital part of their regular wages such that when they were withheld, grievances were filed during the reign of Ramesses III. “ /+/

Christina Riggs of the University of East Anglia wrote: “The adornment of the body through dress, cosmetics, jewellery, and ornaments was an extension of the bodily self...“The importance of grooming and adorning the body is reflected in the number of cosmetic preparations and utensils buried with the dead, along with jewelry and artifacts worn on the body. This pattern of grave goods is observed already in prehistoric times, when combs, pins, tags, beads, and cosmetic vessels dominate burial assemblages.” [Source: Christina Riggs, University of East Anglia, UK, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

In 2016, an exhibition called Beyond Beauty — - focusing mostly on Egyptian beauty products— was organised by the charitable foundation Bulldog Trust at Two Temple Place in central London. On the 350 featured exhibits the,Alastair Sooke wrote for the BBC, “There are dinky combs and handheld mirrors made of copper alloy or, more rarely, silver. There are siltstone palettes, carved to resemble animals, which were used for grinding minerals such as green malachite and kohl for eye makeup. [Source: Alastair Sooke, BBC, February 4, 2016. Sooke is Art Critic of The Daily Telegraph |::|]

“There are also pale calcite jars and vessels of assorted sizes, in which makeup, as well as unguents and perfumes, could be stored. Then there is a scrap of human hair that suggests the ancient Egyptians commonly wore hair extensions and wigs. And, of course, there are lots of striking examples of Egyptian jewellery, including a string of beads, decorated with carnelian pendants in the shape of poppy heads, found in the grave of a small child wrapped in matting.” |::|

Ancient Egyptian Cosmetics and Make Up

Duck-shaped kohl spoon
In ancient Egypt cosmetics were widely used by both men and women. Black eyeliner was widely used. Ocher was applied for rouge. Oils and creams, often scented, kept skin moist in the dry climate. Sometimes cosmetics were even given as part of one’s wages.

Cosmetics were believed to be imbued with magical powers. Wearing green eye paint, or “ awadju”, was thought to summon the protection of Hathor, the goddess of beauty.

Even in death cosmetics were regarded as a key to maintaining a youthful appearance. Among the objects buried with he dead to meet their needs in the afterlife were cosmetics, cosmetic spoons, palettes for on which kohl and ocher could be ground into cosmetics using polished stones, tubes to store eyeliner, jars of moisturizer, ivory hair combs, fragrant cedar and juniper.

Christina Riggs of the University of East Anglia wrote: Scented and moisturizing preparations were widely used for skin and hair, along with cosmetics, in particular green and black eye make-up made from malachite and galena, respectively. Cosmetic lines extending the eyebrows and the outer eye corners can indicate elevated or other-worldly status in art, being applied, for instance, to the king, the gods, and the transfigured dead. Skin color also had symbolic aspects in art: reddish brown paint was typically used to represent men, and light red or yellow for women, although there are a number of exceptions to these general observations. Yellow and white skin color symbolized the shining, bright skin of the gods and the transfigured dead, while deities like Osiris could be shown with black or green skin.” [Source: Christina Riggs, University of East Anglia, UK, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

Ancient Egyptian Eye Make Up

20120216-Maler_der_Grabkammer_der_B.jpg The Egyptians are credited with inventing eye makeup and were wearing it as far back as 4000 B.C. Both men and women wore eye makup; believing it could cure eye diseases and keep them from falling victim to the evil eye. The most common type, a black ointment known as kohl, was made with soot combined with a lead mineral called galena.. Green eye makeup was made by combining malachite — a green-colored a copper carbonate hydroxide mineral — with galena. [Source: Mark Millmore, ^^^]

Egyptians wore black eyeliner — known as “mesdemet” of kohl, from Arabic, the world's first mascara — in a circle or oval around their eyes, in part to ward off the evil eye but mainly it seems for the same reason women do it today: to accentuate their eyes and make their beauty pop out. A kind of paste stirred in a jar and moistened with saliva, kohl was generally made from antimony but also from burnt almond shells, fat and malachite, black oxide of copper and brown clay ocher. Applied with ivory, wood or metal sticks, it was also used to darken eyelashes and eyebrows.

Eye shadow was worn on the upper eyelids and lower eyelids. It was usually black or green. Green eye shadow was made of powdered malachite (copper ore). Black came from galena (a dark sulfide of lead); gray was made from calcium carbonate. Goose fat was used as a binder. The ancient Egyptians also wore eye glitter made from the iridescent shells of beetles mixed with powder.

Cheryl Dawley of Minnesota State University, Mankato, wrote: “Eye makeup was probably the most characteristic of the Egyptian cosmetics. The most popular colors were green and black. The green was originally made from malachite, an oxide of copper. In the Old Kingdom (2649–2150 B.C.) it was applied liberally from the eyebrow to the base of the nose. In the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1640 B.C.), green eye paint continued to be used for the brows and the corners of the eyes, but by the New Kingdom it had been superseded by black. Black eye paint, kohl, was usually made of a sulfide of lead called galena. Its use continued to the Coptic period. By that time, soot was the basis for the black pigment. Both malachite and galena were ground on a palette with either gum and/or water to make a paste. Round-ended sticks made of wood, bronze, haematite, obsidian or glass were used to apply the eye make-up.”[Source: Cheryl Dawley, Minnesota State University, Mankato,]

Sarcophagi depict faces with heavy eye-liner. Kohl, which the ancient Egyptians applied like eye-liner, is thought to have used as both a beauty and means of screening out the bright Egyptian sun. On the use of kohl as eye make up, Alastair Sooke wrote for the BBC: “Recent scientific research suggests that the toxic, lead-based mineral that formed its base would have had anti-bacterial properties when mixed with moisture from the eyes. In addition, the heavy application of kohl around the eyes would have helped to reduce glare from the sun. In other words, there were simple, practical reasons why both men and women in ancient Egypt wished to wear eye makeup.[Source: Alastair Sooke, BBC, February 4, 2016. Sooke is Art Critic of The Daily Telegraph |::|]

Ancient Egyptian Cosmetic Ingredients

Moisturizing creams and oils were made with bullock bile, whipped ostrich eggs, olive oil, plant resins, fresh milk and sea salt and were scented with frankincense, myrrh, thyme, marjoram and essences of fruit and nuts , particularly almonds. Anti-wrinkle creams were made with wax, olive oil, incense, milk, juniper leavers and crocodile dung.

Analysis of Egyptian make-up turned up galena, cerussite (a white carbonate of lead), , laurionite and phosgenite. Shades of gray were made by mixing galena, which is black, with cerussite laurionite and phosgenite, which are white.

Cosmetic powders usually contained around 10 percent grease which was used to provide texture and help it adhere to the skin. The grease usually came from animal fat, perhaps from geese. Modern cosmetics also contain about 10 percent vegetable fat.

Ancient Egyptian Cosmetic Chemistry

Kohl pot in the form of Bes
Analysis of make-up powders found in the tombs of pharaohs who died between 2000 and 1200 B.C. showed they were made of chemical compounds such as laurionite and phosgenite that are not found in nature and are made using complicated process. The analysis was done at the Louvre by chemists from L'Oreal cosmetic company.

L'Oreal chemist Philippe Walter told Discover magazine, "To make laurionite and phosgenite, they couldn't use fire and high temperature. Those compounds are not stable above 170̊C. So they had to use gentler methods involving wet chemistry, the chemistry of solutions."

Walter believes the Egyptians made the compounds using methods like those used by Greeks a millennium later. The Greeks heated the galena to get rid of the sulfur and form a lead oxide, which was mixed with water and salt at a low temperature. Adding water for 40 days or so to keep the pH neutral yields laurionite. using some ground up natron produces phosgenite.

Lead-based eye liner and eye shadow contained oxidized chlorine chemicals that are rare in nature and require the difficult process of wet chemistry to make. Chemists believed that Egyptians went though the trouble to make these chemicals partly to produce cosmetics that had medicinal qualities. Laurionite and phosgenite were used by the Greeks and Romans to treat eye diseases. In ancient Egypt, eyes diseases such as conjunctivitis were very common.

Practical Side of Ancient Egyptian Beauty Aids

Eyeliner not only helped one’s appearance it also helped keep away flies, cut the sun’s glare and contained lead sulfide and chlorine, which acted as disinfectants. There is no evidence of an toxic results from the lead. Ancient Egyptian eye makeup may have been used to warded off infections. Work by Paris-based analytical chemists Philippe Walter and Christian Amatore points that one of its key ingredients — lead — kills bacteria and eye make-up itself may have been used to prevent eye disease.

Alastair Sooke wrote for the BBC: “For modern archaeologists, the ubiquity of beauty products in ancient Egypt offers a conundrum. On the one hand, it is possible that ancient Egyptians were besotted with superficial appearance, much as we are today. Indeed, perhaps they even set the template for how we still perceive beauty. But, on the other, there is a risk that we could project our own narcissistic values onto a fundamentally different culture. Is it possible that the significance of cosmetic artefacts in ancient Egypt went beyond the frivolous desire simply to look attractive? [Source: Alastair Sooke, BBC, February 4, 2016. Sooke is Art Critic of The Daily Telegraph |::|]

“This is what many archaeologists now believe. Take the common use of kohl eye makeup in ancient Egypt – the inspiration for smoky eye makeup today. Recent scientific research suggests that the toxic, lead-based mineral that formed its base would have had anti-bacterial properties when mixed with moisture from the eyes. In addition, the heavy application of kohl around the eyes would have helped to reduce glare from the sun. In other words, there were simple, practical reasons why both men and women in ancient Egypt wished to wear eye makeup. |::|

“It’s the same with other ancient Egyptian ‘beauty products’. Wigs helped to reduce the risk of lice. Jewellery had powerful symbolic and religious significance. A fired clay female figure, depicting an erotic dancer, excavated at Abydos in Upper Egypt and now in the exhibition at Two Temple Place, is embellished with indentations that were meant to represent tattoos. Of course, in ancient Egypt, tattoos probably had a decorative purpose. But they may have had a protective function too. There is evidence that, during the New Kingdom, dancing girls and prostitutes used to tattoo their thighs with images of the dwarf deity Bes, who warded off evil, as a precaution against venereal disease.” |::|

Ancient Egypt’s Toxic Makeup Fought Infection, Researchers Say

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 properties that helped prevent infections common at the time, according to a report published Friday in Analytical Chemistry, a semimonthly journal of the American Chemical Society. [Source: Sindya N. Bhanoo, New York Times, January 18, 2010]

“It was puzzling; they were able to build a strong, rich society, so they were not completely crazy,” Christian Amatore, a chemist at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and one of the paper’s authors, told the New York Times. “But they believed this makeup was healing — they said incantations as they mixed it, things that today we call garbage.”

Amatore and his fellow researchers, Bhanoo wrote, used electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction to analyze 52 samples from containers of Egyptian makeup preserved at the Louvre. They found that the makeup was primarily made by mixing four lead-based chemicals: galena, which produced dark tones and gloss, and the white materials cerussite, laurionite and phosgenite. Because the samples had disintegrated over the centuries, the researchers were not able to determine what percentage of the makeup was lead.

Cosmetics case
Although many written texts, paintings and statues from the period indicate that the makeup was extensively used, Egyptians saw it as magical, not medicine, Dr. Amatore said. In ancient Egypt, during periods when the Nile flooded, Egyptians had infections caused by particles that entered the eye and caused diseases and inflammations. The scientists argue that the lead-based makeup acted as a toxin, killing bacteria before it spread.

As for the use of such chemicals today Amatore said that the toxicity of lead compounds overshadowed the benefits and that there had been many documented cases of poisoning as a result of lead in paints and plumbing in the 20th century. Neal Langerman, a physical chemist and the president of Advanced Chemical Safety, a health safety and environmental protection consulting firm, said, “You probably won’t want to do this at home, especially if you have a small child or a dog that likes to lick you.”

Nonetheless, Dr. Langerman said, it makes sense that the Egyptians were attracted to the compounds. “Lead and arsenic, among other metals, make beautiful color pigments,” he said. “Because they make an attractive color and because you can create a powder with them, it makes sense to use it as a skin colorant.” “It’s the dose that makes the poison,” Dr. Langerman said, in paraphrasing the Renaissance physician Paracelsus. “A low dose kills the bacteria. In a high dose, you’re taking in too much.”

Men's Beauty in Ancient Egypt

Many Egyptian men, including pharaohs and ordinary fishermen, wore make up. Men also painted their nails and wore earrings and anklets. A relief from 2400 B.C. in the tomb of the nobleman Ptahhotep, showed him getting a pedicure.

There is evidence that men shaved as far back as 20,000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians equated clean-shaven faces with nobility. Bronze razors have been found in the graves of high-status men.

In King Tutankhamun's tomb, dated at 1350 B.C., archaeologists found jars of skin cream, lip color, cheek rouge and still usable fragrances. Men used cosmetics such as sunscreen and skin lubricant.

Tattoos in Ancient Egypt

Egyptian women were also fond of tattoos. Singers, dancers and prostitutes wore them and some wore cones of unguent at parties that melted and covered their bodies with scent.

Cheryl Dawley of Minnesota State University, Mankato, wrote: “Tattooing was known and practiced. Mummies of dancers and concubines, from the Middle Kingdom, have geometric designs tattooed on their chests, shoulders and arms. In the New Kingdom, tattoos of the god Bes could be found on the thighs of dancers, musicians and servant girls.” [Source: Cheryl Dawley, Minnesota State University, Mankato,]

Alastair Sooke wrote for the BBC: “A fired clay female figure, depicting an erotic dancer, excavated at Abydos in Upper Egypt and now in the exhibition at Two Temple Place, is embellished with indentations that were meant to represent tattoos. Of course, in ancient Egypt, tattoos probably had a decorative purpose. But they may have had a protective function too. There is evidence that, during the New Kingdom, dancing girls and prostitutes used to tattoo their thighs with images of the dwarf deity Bes, who warded off evil, as a precaution against venereal disease.” [Source: Alastair Sooke, BBC, February 4, 2016. Sooke is Art Critic of The Daily Telegraph |::|]

“Sacred” Animal and Flower Tattoos Found on 3000-Year-Old Mummy

mummy tattoo

In April 2016, scientists announced they had found a 3000-year-old mummy from ancient Egypt heavily tattooed with animals and flower symbols, which are believed to have been sacred and have served to advertise and enhance the religious powers of the woman. Traci Watson wrote in Scientific American: “The newly reported tattoos are the first on a mummy from dynastic Egypt to show actual objects, among them lotus blossoms on the mummy’s hips, cows on her arm and baboons on her neck. Just a few other ancient Egyptian mummies sport tattoos, and those are merely patterns of dots or dashes. Especially prominent among the new tattoos are so-called wadjet eyes: possible symbols of protection against evil that adorn the mummy’s neck, shoulders and back. “Any angle that you look at this woman, you see a pair of divine eyes looking back at you,” says bioarchaeologist Anne Austin of Stanford University in California, who presented the findings at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. [Source: Traci Watson, Scientific American, May 5, 2016 /*/]

“Austin noticed the tattoos while examining mummies for the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology, which conducts research at Deir el-Medina, a village once home to the ancient artisans who worked on tombs in the nearby Valley of the Kings. Looking at a headless, armless torso dating from 1300 to 1070 B.C., Austin noticed markings on the neck. At first, she thought that they had been painted on, but she soon realized that they were tattoos. /*/

“Austin knew of tattoos discovered on other mummies using infrared imaging, which peers more deeply into the skin than visible-light imaging. With help from infrared lighting and an infrared sensor, Austin determined that the Deir el-Medina mummy boasts more than 30 tattoos, including some on skin so darkened by the resins used in mummification that they were invisible to the eye. Austin and Cédric Gobeil, director of the French mission at Deir el-Medina, digitally stretched the images to counter distortion from the mummy’s shrunken skin. /*/

“The tattoos identified so far carry powerful religious significance. Many, such as the cows, are associated with the goddess Hathor, one of the most prominent deities in ancient Egypt. The symbols on the throat and arms may have been intended to give the woman a jolt of magical power as she sang or played music during rituals for Hathor. The tattoos may also be a public expression of the woman’s piety, says Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute in Illinois. “We didn’t know about this sort of expression before,” Teeter says, adding that she and other Egyptologists were “dumbfounded” when they heard of the finding. /*/

“Some tattoos are more faded than others, so perhaps some were made at different times. This could suggest that the woman’s religious status grew with age, Austin says. She has already found three more tattooed mummies at Deir el-Medina, and hopes that modern techniques will uncover more elsewhere. Even infrared imaging can’t penetrate an intact mummy’s linen binding. But a nineteenth-century penchant for unwrapping mummies could enable the discovery of more tattoos, says Marie Vandenbeusch, a curator at the British Museum in London. Such examples could provide needed evidence “to really pinpoint the use of those tattoos”, she says. /*/

“Austin argues that the scale of the designs, many of them in places out of the woman’s reach, implies that they were more than simple adornment. The application of the tattoos “would’ve been very time consuming, and in some areas of the body, extremely painful”, Austin says. That the woman subjected herself to the needle so often shows “not only her belief in their importance, but others around her as well”.” /*/

Perfume in Ancient Egypt

baboon-shaped perfume vessel

"Perfume" — a Latin word meaning "through smoke" — comes to us from the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, who used the burnt resin from desert shrubs such as myrrh, cassia, spikenard and frankincense for their aromatic fragrance. Pharaohs burned incense as an offering to the gods and were embalmed with cumin, marjoram and cinnamon. The ancient Egyptians believed that bad odors caused disease and good ones chased them away. Perfumes and fragrances were rubbed on the body for health reasons and to ward off curses. At parties men wore garlands of flower and perfume and spread powdered perfume on their beds so their bodies would absorb the scent during the night. Flower petals were scattered on the floor and perfumed water poured from orifices in statues.

The Egyptians developed ornate glass vessels to hold perfume and developed the process of effleurage (squeezing aromatics into fatty oils). Cedarwood was used to give house and mummies a fresh smell; incenses was used to protect papyrus from insects.

Lise Manniche of the University of Copenhagen wrote: “In ancient Egypt, scent was released in the form of incense, or it was prepared on a base of oils or fat. Although distillation appears to have been known in parts of the ancient world c. 2000 B.C., there is as yet no proof of its having been applied in Pharaonic Egypt... Perfume in Egypt was fat-based, and the ingredients most often mentioned in texts are frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, cassia, and cardamom. Scent had an important role in temple and funerary ritual. Furthermore, perfume was a luxury item and a commodity traded in the Mediterranean. [Source: Lise Manniche, University of Copenhagen, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

“The sources of our information are as follows: prescriptions included in medical papyri or on temple walls or quoted by classical authors (e.g., Theophrastus, Pliny, Galen, Dioscorides); representations of activities related to scent manufacture on tomb walls; scent containers and representations of such containers on the walls of tombs and temples, indicating contexts in which scent was used; surviving raw materials; surviving prepared substances and analyses thereof; and survivals in Islamic and modern practices. Scent was a luxury item. Costly ingredients were imported, prepared, and exported, and there are many examples of this traffic both entering and leaving Egypt from as early as 2000 B.C.. This trade was a major force in the Egyptianeconomy. Traditionally, frankincense and myrrh came from the land of Punt (in the area of Eritrea and Somalia), but Syria- Palestine is known to be a source of pistacia resin.”

Types of Perfume in Ancient Egypt

Greco-Egyptian hedgehog-shaped perfume container

The earliest perfumes were not used for cosmetic purposed but rather as offerings to gods. Incense was burned by the ton during ceremonies. In some cases it was used as a kind of deodorizer for sacrificed animals. By 3000 B.C., Egyptians and Mesopotamian were using perfumes as body scents and bathing oils rather than incense.

Egyptian women used different perfumes for different parts of their bodies. Cleopatra used an oil of roses and violets on her hands and anointed her feet with an oil with honey, cinnamon, iris, hyacinth and orange blossoms.

Cheryl Dawley of Minnesota State University, Mankato, wrote: “The Egyptians were quite fond of strong scents. A great variety of oils and fats were available for perfumes. The most popular was the basic oil called balanos, among the lower class it was castor oil. In terms of perfumes, a distillation process using steam was probably not used for extracting scents from flowers, seeds or fruits. There were three known techniques for extracting scents. The first was enfleurage, accomplished by soaking flowers in layers of fat. Creams and pomades were created in this manner. A popular form of pomade was shaped like a cone and worn on the top of the head. As the evening progressed the cone would melt and the scented oil would run down the face and neck. The cones would be renewed throughout the evening. The second process was called maceration. Flowers, herbs or fruits were dipped into fats or oils and heated to 65 degrees Celsius. The mixture was sieved and allowed to cool then shaped into cones or balls. The third process, though not used often, was to express the essence from flowers or seeds much like the wine maker did from fruit.” [Source: Cheryl Dawley, Minnesota State University, Mankato, +]

Ingredients of Perfumes in Ancient Egypt

Lise Manniche of the University of Copenhagen wrote: “When assessing the ingredients that went into scented preparations as quoted in texts, the main problem encountered is of a lexicographical nature. Although the general category of an ingredient is indicated by a determinative, many plant names remain unidentified, and some designations may have changed or developed over the centuries. Where translations into Greek are available, this is only helpful up to a point, as authors may suggest a substitute ingredient, rather than a translation, for a plant that was perhaps not available locally. Adulteration of expensive scents was common. Foreign ingredients of a durable nature were appreciated for their rarity, and preparations from more common and ephemeral ingredients (e.g., lotus) do not appear to have been recorded as frequently. [Source: Lise Manniche, University of Copenhagen, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]


“When quoting Egyptian recipes for scents, classical authors make frequent mention of a small number of popular ingredients: frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, cassia, and cardamom. All of these would themselves have been imported by the Egyptians. Temple records of New-Kingdom date mention large shipments of frankincense and myrrh, which is known to have been acquired on the coast of modern Somalia and Eritrea. The spices would have come by caravan from even further afield. Ptolemaic inscriptions specify numerous designations for gums and resins according to age, color, texture, etc. Other plant ingredients quoted include iris, henna, juniper, lily, marjoram, mint, myrtle, sweet flag, cyprus grass, mastic, and pistacia resin. Occasionally, mineral ingredients are included.

“Known base ingredients for incense are raisins and sycamore figs, but raisins would burn easily on their own. Available base ingredients for scent to be applied to the body would include oil of local Sesamum indicum L., Ricinus communis L., Balanos aegyptiaca L., Moringa oleifera, and (in limited quantity and probably imported) olive and almond, with fat of ox, sheep, or fowl for a more solid unguent. Pulp or liquid (reben) of starchy seeds of an as-yet-unidentified Ethiopian tree (nedjem) was also used. Most available analyses of the contents of perfume jars are antiquated and only specify “fatty matter” (e.g., analyses of the substances from the tomb of Tutankhamun) or are summary, but results of the application of modern technology are beginning to appear. Samples taken from the mummy of Ramesses II were subjected to pollen analysis with interesting results: his body had been anointed with chamomile oil, the flower having grown in a field with a host of other plants that left pollen traces. Ongoing research in French laboratories (and elsewhere) using chromatography and infrared spectroscopy should provide further details on ingredients and methods of preparation, such as wet chemistry, in the future.

Manufacture of Perfumes in Ancient Egypt

Lise Manniche of the University of Copenhagen wrote: “Most textual references for the manufacture of Egyptian scents date to the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. In order to extract the properties of plants and flowers to be added to the base material, the Egyptians used maceration and boiling. Apart from the choice of ingredients, sequence and timing were crucial, as the ingredient added last would be the most pungent. Some items (e.g., orris root) were added to bind the scents or to bring out the fragrance (e.g., sweet wine added to myrrh). Most perfumes were left in their natural color, although alkanet could be used for dyeing them red. [Source: Lise Manniche, University of Copenhagen, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

“Details of perfume preparation are available primarily from the Ptolemaic temple of Edfu, where they are inscribed on the walls of the so-called laboratory, which, due to lack of light and ventilation, rather served as a storeroom. The instructions may have been copied from a “Book of Unguent” mentioned among the library books stored in the temple of Dendara. The entire operation might take up to a year, even two, if the preparation of the base ingredient was included. Before proceeding with the main ingredients, the oil or fat was made astringent by adding herbs and spices. The recipes are meticulous in specifying quantities, especially of the reduction that would take place during cooking, which if done correctly, would have a pre-calculated end result. “Classical authors give many instructions about preparing scent with frequent references to Egyptian practices. These scents were aimed at Greek or Roman customers, and the perfume was a luxury item, not necessarily for sacred use. Perfume may have been imported from Egypt in bulk or in glass bottles, which have been found all over the Mediterranean. It may also have been prepared “on license” from ingredients shipped in - hence the need for having the recipes in print. Delicate floral scents had to be macerated several times. For making a batch of lily perfume, Dioscorides reports that he would take 1000 lilies and macerate them for 24 hours in spiced balanos oil. After straining and skimming, another 1000 lilies would be macerated in this oil. The more times this was repeated, the stronger the scent.

“The manufacture of scent must have been a major industry in Egypt. However, no production centers seem to have been unearthed, and, unlike other crafts, it was hardly ever included in tomb decoration. One exception is a 26th-Dynasty representation of the squeezing of flowers now in the Louvre; another is a unique sequence of figures painted on the wall of the anonymous (non-royal) Theban tomb number 175, which dates to the mid-18th Dynasty and shows grinding, sifting, cooking, and bottling along with some of the ingredients .

Uses of Perfumes in Ancient Egypt

Lise Manniche of the University of Copenhagen wrote: “Incense was burnt in quantity during the daily temple ritual, as well as in connection with embalming, at funerary ceremonies, and at home, the purpose being to purify the air. The overall caption for this act is jrt snTr, snTr having recently been demonstrated to be a specific designation for pistacia resin, although it probably carries an extended meaning. The most famous of all scents was kyphi, known from three versions on temple walls (two at Edfu, one at Philae), from papyri, and from mentions as early as the Pyramid Texts. Kyphi is the Greek rendering of Egyptian kapet, which means a substance to be smoked (= pro fumo). Kyphi was also quoted extensively by classical writers and in the Middle Ages (Nicolaos from Alexandria, c. CE 1300). The number of ingredients in kyphi is in the region of 16, including resins, herbs and spices on a base of raisins. Already in the New Kingdom, P. Ebers included a recipe for kyphi, but with fewer ingredients. Galen prescribed it for snakebites, but Plutarch described the spiritual and therapeutic effects of inhaling kyphi or even taking it in wine. He specifies a sun kyphi and a moon kyphi. Attempts have been made at recreating and marketing kyphi in modern times, but any claim to authenticity would stumble over lexicographical hurdles.[Source: Lise Manniche, University of Copenhagen, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

making lily perfume, 4th dynasty of Egypt, 2500 BC

“Perfumed oils or fats were used for anointing the image of the deity during the daily temple ritual, and liquid resin was poured over offering tables. Perfume was also part of the “package” given by the king to worthy officials during reward ceremonies, along with golden necklaces and sometimes gloves. It played a major part in funerary beliefs for ordinary mortals as well as for royalty. Tutankhamun’s tomb contained some 350 liters of oils and fats, some in fanciful containers carved of calcite (alabaster). The value of this commodity can be appreciated by the fact that the second lot of robbers who entered the tomb brought with them leather skins specifically for removing the oils. Residue remains in the jars to this day, some with the fingerprints of the robbers who scooped out the contents.

“The elite in Egypt would include in their burials samples of the traditional seven sacred oils, and no doubt also larger containers, such as those shown on the walls of their tomb chapels from as early as the 3rd Dynasty. Smaller containers, often called cosmetic spoons, were carved out of wood or alabaster in the shape of swimming girls with ducks, lotus flowers, pomegranates, gazelles, or similar. By having an erotic significance, these spoons would assist the deceased in the quest for rebirth and eternal life. In tomb scenes depicting banquets on the occasion of annual funerary festivals, guests appear to be balancing cones of unguent on top of their heads, though this is probably an indication from the artist that the guests were heavily perfumed with otherwise invisible scent. Scent played a major part in the erotic imagination of the Egyptians at many levels, from love poems to theogamy tales where the identity of a god is revealed through the perfume he exudes at the crucial moment.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo and Livescience (the mummy tattoo)

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato,; Mark Millmore,; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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