Cosmetics and Perfumes

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Cosmetics and Perfumes


Sources of Knowledge. Cosmetics and perfumes were included with the burials of both men and women in ancient Egypt. Additional knowledge of the use of cosmetics can be deduced from funerary paintings and relief sculpture.

Hygiene. Cleanliness was the most important component of ritual purity for Egyptians and was also considered significant in daily life. Upper-class homes were equipped with areas containing an early variant on the shower stall— a slab of stone with a drain provided a platform where people knelt as a servant poured water from a bucket.

Soap. The ancient Egyptian equivalent of soap was a body scrub made from salt, natron, and honey. In the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus (circa 1630-1539 b.c.e.), the author suggests that calcite granules also were added to the body scrub. A skin cleanser found in a tomb of a wife of Thutmose III (circa 1479-1425 b.c.e.) was made from vegetable oil and lime. Natron, the drying agent used to preserve mummies, contained calcium carbonate and calcium bicarbonate. These two compounds are the major ingredients in some modern bath salts. Thus, natron was likely also used by the Egyptians for cleansing.

Eye Makeup. Both men and women wore kohl, a makeup applied in an outline around the eyes. Egyptians believed that the preparation kept the eyes healthy as well as beautifying them. It is likely that kohl reduced the glare from the sun. Kohl could be made from galena, malachite, manganese oxide, brown ocher, iron oxide, copper oxide, or antimony. Any of these elements were mixed with fat. Kohl was stored in containers of various shapes.

Lip Color. Women colored their lips with a mixture of red ocher in a base of animal fat. Some scholars believe henna, a reddish-brown plant dye, was also used to color lips, cheeks, and fingernails. The Turin Erotic Papyrus (circa

1190-1075 b.c.e.), for example, depicts a woman applying lipstick.

Wrinkle Remover. Several recipes in the Ebers Medical Papyrus (circa 1630-539 b.c.e.) are suggested for removing wrinkles. These recipes include fenugreek, an aromatic Asian herb that was boiled in oil, or frankincense combined with balsam.

Tattoos. Known examples of tattoos from ancient Egypt are limited to women. The Middle Kingdom (circa 1980-1630 b.c.e.) mummy of Amunet, a priestess of Hathor, shows a pattern of dots on the torso. Other figurines of women from this period also show patterns of dots that might represent tattoos on the hips and the pubic area. New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.) female musicians sometimes had tattoos of the demigod Bes on their thighs. Cultic use of the tattoo is still found among modern Egyptian Christian women.

Pleasing Smells. Scents in Egypt were made from oils and fats impregnated with the scent of plants. True perfume (made with alcohol) was unknown in Egypt. The most common scent was made from the lotus flower and the henna plant. Other scented substances used for Egyptian scents were cedar wood, cinnamon, thyme, and coriander. Imported resins—such as myrrh, frankincense, laudanum, and galbanum—might also have been used to create scents.

Perfume Makers. Perfume makers, as depicted in tombs at Beni Hasan dating to the Middle Kingdom, gathered flowers and put them in large bags. Sticks attached to the mouths of the bags were twisted to squeeze the essence from the flowers. This liquid would then be combined with fats or oils to make scent.


Joann Fletcher, Oils and Perfumes in Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum Press, 1998).

Lyn Green, “Toiletries and Cosmetics,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, volume 3, edited by Donald B. Redford (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 412–417.

Lise Manniche, Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999).

Edwin T. Morris, The Scents of Time: Perfume from Ancient Egypt to the 21st Century (Boston: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Bulfinch Press / Little, Brown, 1999).