Cosmetics in Egypt

I know that Egypt is a far cry from Italy 🙂 but in an endeavor to understand medieval and renaissance cosmetics I feel the best place to start is the beginning. Of course, Egyptian civilization isn’t the absolute beginning of cosmetic use, but for this research endeavor it makes a good starting point as they had large influence on cosmetic use that echoes even to present day trends.

Ancient Egyptian cosmetics (pre-dynastic to Coptic period) included moisturizing and cleansing ointments, face color, eye color, and fragrances.

The most common eye colors were galena ore, a dark grey, and malachite ore, a dusky green (Lucas 1926). Both galena and malachite have been found in graves as stains on color palettes, on stones which ground the material for kohl, in powder form, and in compact mass as a former paste. The crude form has also been found in graves in linen or leather bags, in shells, and small vases. The kohl mass remnants of galena, now dried and shrunken are absent of fatty matter which makes the use of water or gum and water for the paste as probable (Wiedermann). Shells were used as receptacles for pigments other than eye color as well (Lucas 1930). Kohl was made of galena, alone with gum and/or water, and sometimes other materials such as black ochre, brown ochre, malachite, and sulfide of antimony (Lucas 1930).

Lucas (1930)states that ancient Egyptian women used red ochre as face color in order to redden their cheeks.

Emollients were applied to the skin and hair to combat the effects of their hot, dry climate. Castor oil was available to the poorer classes, as it is made from a plant that grew wild in the country areas. Animal fats were also used. Fragrance was added to oils to mask rancidity and to make the oils more pleasing.

As the process of distillation was not discovered until 4th Century BC, the Egyptians did not have a way to produce liquid perfumes of alcohol. They soaked flower petals in ben (balanus), olive (omphacium), and almond (metopium) oil in order to render a pleasing perfumed oil. The Romans also used this method, where various plants were steeped in oil and then strained. Unguents could be scented with the resulting infused oil.

Animal perfumes such as ambergris, civet, and musk were not known, but resins (ladanum) and gum-resins (myrrh, galbanum, turpentine) were used by the Egyptians to scent oils and fats. Perfumes that have been examined contain storax (a balsam), incense, myrrh, turpentine resin, bitumen, henna, vegetable material, palm wine, fruit extracts, and grape wine.

Henna (cyprinum) leaves were used by the Egyptians to make a paste to color the palms of their hands, the soles of their feet, their nails, and their hair. Later, the Romans would use the Egyptian shrub to color the hair.

Incense was used from the 5th and 6th Dynasties to scent homes, tombs, ships, and open air marketplaces. The most popular ones, based on materials found are the gum-resins frankincense and myrrh. They come from the Boswelia, Balsamodendron (myrrh only), and Commiphora species in Somaliland and Arabia. Egyptian women sometimes chewed frankincense resin to perfume their breath.

Lucas, A. “Cosmetics, Perfumes and Incense in Ancient Egypt”. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 16, No. 1/2 (May, 1930) pp. 41-5.
Lucas, A. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries. (1926) pp. 59, 104, 146-7. Kessinger Publishing
Wiederman, A. Varieties of Ancient Kohl. WM Flinders Petrie. pp. 42, 43

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