Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt: Personal Hygiene and Cosmetics
Preservation of youthful looks

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The eye of the funerary mask of Tutankhamen
An eye of the funerary mask of Tutankhamen

Toiletry casket
Toiletry casket
IV dynasty
(After a picture on the Tulane University site)

Personal Hygiene and Cosmetics



Make up (University of Illinois)     Egyptians used cosmetics regardless of sex and social status for both aesthetic and therapeutic reasons. Oils and unguents were rubbed into the skin to protect it from the hot air. Most frequently used were white make-up, black make-up made with carbon, lead sulphide (galena) or manganese oxide (pyrolusite) and green make-up from malachite and other copper based minerals. Red ochre was ground and mixed with water, and applied to the lips and cheeks, painted on with a brush. Henna was used to dye the fingernails yellow and orange.

Make-up [22]

    Kohl was applied to the eyes with a small stick. Both upper and lower eyelids were painted and a line was added extending from the corner of the eye to the sides of the face, the eye brows were painted black. It was believed that the makeup had magical and even healing powers.
    Most people will have applied the make-up themselves, but for those who could afford it, there was the professional cosmetician, the, the 'face painter' so to speak.[23]
    Even after death one had to take care of one's looks. When presenting oneself before the gods during the Judgment of the Dead one had best observe certain rules of dress and make-up in order to make the right impression:
A man says this speech when he is pure, clean, dressed in fresh clothes, shod in white sandals, painted with eye-paint, anointed with the finest oil of myrrh.
Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead [24]
    Because of their importance in the afterworld cosmetics were among the offerings left in tombs. Seshat-Hetep, called Heti, lists among the offerings in his mastaba at Giza:
Incense, green make-up, black eye-paint, the best of ointment ...
Mastaba of Seshat-Hetep, called Heti [25]

The production of cosmetics

    Oil was the base of most cosmetic products. The finest oil was pressed from the fruit of Balanites Aegyptiaca. Behen, oil from Moringa nuts, and a kind of almond nut oil were also used [6]. These oils were mixed with organic and inorganic substances finely ground up [15], serving as pigments. At times the quality of these ingredients left much to be desired which might lead the makers of cosmetics to rebuke their suppliers:
The King's order addressed to the High Priest of Amen, king of gods, Ramses-nakht.
The following: This royal order was brought to you with the words that I have sent (it) to you by the supervisor of the treasury of Pharaoh, l.p.h., and the King's butler Amenhotep, reading: Have excellent galena for the make-up of the Pharaoh, l.p.h., taken where one (i.e. he) is, and you sent 15
deben [14] of galena through him. When it had been handed to the physicians in the place of physicians of Pharaoh in the residence in order to prepare it, it was found to be very bad galena and no make-up usable for Pharaoh, l.p.h., was among it. Only a single deben of galena was found among it....
pCairo ESP, Letter, New Kingdom [13]
One surmises that the High Priest had the 100 deben of galena requested further on in this letter checked more closely before despatching them.
Queen Tiyi Kohl Tube (Photo: Rosicrucian Order)     Kohl [16] is the eye paint of choice in middle-eastern countries. In ancient Egypt it was made by grinding green malachite, galena - a gray lead ore, cerussite, a white carbonate of lead, and sometimes small amounts of the lead compounds laurionite and phosgenite, into a powder and mixing it with oil or fat. Black eye-paint was referred to as msdm.t,[26] while the green variety was called wAD.w.[27]
    According to ancient records eye paint was also imported: an unidentified eye-cosmetic was brought from Punt by Hatshepsut's expedition together with, among other things, ihmut-incense, sonter-incense, apes and monkeys, and Thutmose III gathered an unspecified amount of it as booty from his campaign in Naharin.[28]
    Philippe Walter and researchers from the Laboratoire de recherche des musées de France and L’Oréal-Recherche found, when analysing the contents of 49 containers from the Louvre Museum, that the cosmetics contained, in addition to commonly used lead-based minerals , synthetic compounds derived from a process called wet chemistry: Crushed lead oxide was mixed with water and sodium chloride (rock salt), then filtered repeatedly, a procedure which may have taken weeks to complete. The resulting lead chloride was used as an ingredient for eye make-up. By adding fats and oils to dry powders a wide range of unguents could be concocted.


Cosmetics jars-
Cosmetics jars[29]
    Cosmetics containers have been depicted since the first dynasty and are among the earliest archaeological finds. At Saqqara fragments of a salve chest with thirty compartments for unguents and oil jars were uncovered. The jars were first made of granite and basalt, later of alabaster and had a pronounced lip. They were covered with a piece of leather which was tied around the neck of the jar underneath the lip. Other materials were also used, such as ivory:
I have ordered you to make this excellent galena eye-paint in the ivory (vessel), about which Pharaoh, l.h.p., my lord, has said: "Let it be brought again and again!"
Letter from the reign of Ramses IX.[17]


Perfume flasks Perfume flasks [30]


      For the main article about perfumes see Scents - incense and perfume
Perfume cone     Egyptian perfumes [12] were famous throughout the Mediterranean. Pliny described a perfume which still had its full fragrance after eight years.
    Perfumes were mostly based on plants: the roots, blossoms or leaves of henna, cinnamon, turpentine, iris, lilies, roses, bitter almonds etc. were soaked in oil and sometimes cooked. The essence was extracted by squeezing, and oil was added to produce liquid perfumes, while creams and salves were the result of adding wax or fat. Many perfumes had more than a dozen ingredients.
    During the New Kingdom people were depicted carrying little cones in their hair, which are generally interpreted as having been made of solid perfume. But examinations of wigs and hair have shown little evidence of fatty residue.
O all people, remember getting drunk on wine, With wreaths and perfume on your heads!
Stela of Nebankh from Abydos [31]
    Like the lotus flowers hovering over the heads of revellers they may be symbols of good cheer rather than representations of actual greasy cones balanced precariously on heads not altogether too stable after their owners had downed a few drinks.
    Pleasant smells were associated with the gods. Amen and Queen Ahmose, wife of Thutmose I, seem to have had a special relationship according to inscriptions describing the conception and birth of Hatshepsut
He (i.e. Amen-Re) found her as she slept in the beauty of her palace. She waked at the fragrance of the god, which she smelled in the presence of his majesty. He went to her immediately, coivit cum ea (slept with her), he imposed his desire upon her, he caused that she should see him in his form of a god. When he came before her, she rejoiced at the sight of his beauty, his love passed into her limbs, which the fragrance of the god flooded; all his odors were from Punt.
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 196
    That the god's odours were from Punt is hardly surprising as the best incense ingredients were imported from there. Frankincense, myrrh, fragrant woods etc. were all brought from East Africa and Arabia [7] and accordingly expensive. Only the very rich could afford to use them, if they were not reserved for the exclusive use of the gods.
Wearers of my fine linen looked at me as if they were needy,
Those perfumed with my myrrh [poured water while wearing it]
The instruction of King Amenemhet I for his son Sesostris I [20]
    Perfumes and creams were generally kept in stone or glass vessels. As the Roman Pliny the Elder remarked in his Natural History
Unguents keep best in boxes of alabaster, and perfumes when mixed with oil, which conduces all the more to their durability the thicker it is, such as the oil of almonds, for instance.
Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Vol. XIII. Chapter 3



    For soap Egyptians used natron, swabu (derived from (s)wab meaning to clean), a paste containing ash or clay,[18] which was often scented, and could be worked into a lather, or the like. The Ebers Medical Papyrus, dating from about 1500 BCE, describes mixing animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts. The soap-like material was used for treating skin diseases, as well as for washing. Footbath

Early dynastic foot bath for a single foot ;[34]

    Walking barefoot, as the Egyptians usually did, the feet got dusty, which, as the compacted earth floors of their houses were no different from the ground outside, probably did not matter much. Still, the better-off Egyptians had wooden or clay foot baths for washing their feet, generally both at the same time; the laver on the right is exceptional, having space for one foot only.
    While a few bathrooms and tubs have been discovered most Egyptians seem to have been content with cleaning themselves by aspersion or by a dip in a canal or the river. At Tebtunis, a centre of Hellenistic culture in the Fayum, public bathhouses have been excavated, the oldest dating to the third century BCE. They had showers, stone basins and a stove to heat the bath water.[3]
    The Egyptians had wash basins and may have filled them with a natron and salt solution from jugs with spouts and used sand as a scouring agent. They washed after rising and both before and after the main meals, but one may assume that their ablutions were mostly perfunctory. As mouth wash they used another solution called bed (transliteration: bd, natron).
    If washing or perfumes did not help to get rid of body odour one might seek the advice of a physician who had a number of recipes at his disposal:
Drive the odour of sweat from the body of a person in summer
Incense, lettuce, fruit of the
n-plant, myrrh. Mix. Rub the patient with it.
Hearst Papyrus No.150 [19]
Drive the odour of sweat from a male or female patient
AH-bread and incense, knead well, turn into pills, put one on the spot where one limb connects to another. For 4 days.
Hearst Papyrus No.151 [19]


See also Laundering garments
    Herodotus wrote
They wear linen garments, which they are specially careful to have always fresh washed. They practise circumcision for the sake of cleanliness, considering it better to be cleanly than comely.
Herodotus, Euterpe 37.1[32]
    The importance upper-class Egyptians attached to cleanliness is reflected by the fact that the royal supervisor over the laundry was a prominent personality at court. But in many ancient societies the act of washing clothes was considered to be demeaning. An Egyptian scribe who described the various trades in his Satire of the Trades in a most unfavourable light, thought so as well and displayed his scorn for the trade of the washerman in the following passage:
His food is mixed with dirt,
No limb of his is clean
[He is given] women's clothes,
He weeps as he spends the day at his washboard
One says to him, "Soiled linen for you,"
The Satire of the Trades [21]


See also the article Hair
See also the article Vermin
    Hair is the natural habitat of lice. The head hair, above all of children, gets easily infested by head lice, which, while they cause itching, are little more than a nuisance. Putting oil on the hair or shaving the head got rid of them or at least suppressed them for a while. More dangerous are body and crab lice which attach their nits to clothing. Apart from causing intense discomfort they can transmit diseases such as typhus. According to Herodotus Egyptian priests shaved their whole bodies to get rid of lice and other impure things.[50]


    While many if not most Egyptian men frequented a barber to have themselves shaved, manicurists probably catered only for the well to do. At court quite a bevy of manicurists seem to have looked after the finger nails of the royals supervised by the Head of the Manicurists of the Palace. Like other positions connected to grooming his majesty's body this one also necessitated its fortunate holder to be physically very close to the king, a familiarity which conferred prestige and power on the beautician. Consequently he proudly displayed his title in his tomb inscriptions such as the one in the grave of Niankh-Khnum and Khnum-hotep, who repeatedly referred to themselves as Intimate of the King in the Work of Manicuring.[51]

Preservation of youthful looks

    Given the fact that most ancient Egyptians were dead by the age of forty, one may well ask oneself what they were worried about. But life was full of risks. Accidents happened and scars often did not heal very well. Burn marks were thus hidden by an ointment made of red ochre, kohl and sycamore juice. Honey, an antibacterial, was often applied to the skin [1][10]. The oil extracted from fenugreek (Greek hay) seeds was used to improve the skin's condition [6].
    Wrinkling of the skin, an effect of excessive exposure to the sun and not just of old age, was treated by applying a wax-based remedy containing gum of frankincense, moringa oil, ground Cyprus grass and fermented plant juice.[1]


    Most records were written by men. References to menstruation are accordingly few and far between.[42] The monthly period was apparently seen as a time of cleansing. Men may have abstained from intimate contact with women who were menstruating and were considered unclean during their period, or the women may have avoided the company of men of their own accord. There is an ostracon from Deir el Medina suggesting, that eight menstruating women left the village together to go to 'the place of women'.[43] Sanitary towels are possibly mentioned in New Kingdom laundry lists,[45] women may have used folded strips of linen, which were washed and reused.[2] Some suggest that the badly understood 12th case of the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus refers to dealing with menstruation, and what appear to be vaginal douches are mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus.[44]


Wb. refers to A. Erman, H. Grapow, Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache, 13 volumes, 1926–1963
[3] Egypt Revealed: Life on the Edge of the Desert, accessed at
[5] Egypt Revealed: Ancient Egyptians Wore Wigs, accessed at
[7] Attempts were made to grow incense trees in Egypt under various kings like Hatshepsut and Ramses III
I planted incense and myrrh sycamores in thy great and august court in Ineb-Sebek, being those which my hands brought from the country of God's Land...
J. H. Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 333

[9] Papyrus Ebers (No.447) and the Hearst Papyrus have a few such recipes:
Remedy for removing hairs from any body parts
Boiled bones of the gbg bird, fly dirt, lard, sycamore milk, gum, a lump of salt. Warm. Apply.
Hearst Papyrus No.155
After W.Wreszinski ed., Der Londoner Medizinische Papyrus und der Papyrus Hearst, Leipzig 1912
[10] The Hearst Papyrus proposes:
Renewing the skin
Honey, red natron, salt of the North. Pulverize together. Rub the limbs with it.
Hearst Papyrus No.153
After W.Wreszinski ed., Der Londoner Medizinische Papyrus und der Papyrus Hearst, Leipzig 1912
[13] After a transliteration and German translation by I. Hafemann (ed.), on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website => aaew => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Neuen Reiches => Verwaltung/Alltag => Briefe aus Theben => pCairo ESP: Document B
[14] deben: about 90 grammes
Cosmetic palette, Petrie Museum [15] During the pre-dynastic and early dynastic period stone slabs were used for this purpose, often beautifully shaped.

Cosmetic palette, Naqada II (3200BCE-3500BCE)
Source: Petrie Museum website

[16] kohl: from Arabic kuhl, a black powder made of antimony or lead sulfide.
[17] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website, I. Hafemann (ed.) => aaew => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Neuen Reiches => Verwaltung/Alltag => Briefe aus Theben =>  pCairo ESP: Document E
[18] Many of the everyday substances used have not been identified. Lucas (p.172) suggested that it seemed possible that the fused ashes of special plants, or natron, might have been employed for some such purpose as washing clothes or the person...
[19] After W.Wreszinski ed., Der Londoner Medizinische Papyrus und der Papyrus Hearst, Leipzig 1912
[20] [20] M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, 1973, p.136
[21] M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, 1973 p.189
[22] Source: University of Illinois website
[23] Wb. 3, 481.6-7, from zXA to write
[24] M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, p.131
[25] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegytiae website, S. Grunert (ed.): Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Grabinschriften => Gisa => Mastaba des Seschat-Hetep, gen. Heti (G 5150) => Opferkammer => Westwand
[26] Wb 2, 153.8-15, galena, a person having professionally to do with galena (prospectors etc) was referred to as msdm.j
[27] Wb 1, 267.9-15, from wAD, green
[28] Naharin - Syria
[29] Source: University of Illinois website
[30] Source: Tulane University web site
[31] M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, p.196
[32] translation by George Rawlinson
[34] Source: E. Brovarski: An Inventory List from "Covington's Tomb" and Nomenclature for Furniture in the Old Kingdom
[42] Gay Robins, Women in Ancient Egypt, Harvard University Press, 1993, p.78
[43] A. G. McDowell, Village Life in Ancient Egypt: Laundry Lists and Love Songs, Oxford University Press, 2002, p.36
[44] e.g. Ann Rosalie David, The pyramid builders of ancient Egypt: a modern investigation of pharaoh's workforce, Routledge, 1996, p.128
[45] David P. Silverman, Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press US, 2003, p.84
[50] Herodotus, Histories, 2.37
[51] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altהgyptisches Wצrterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Grabinschriften des Alten Reiches => Sakkara => Unas-Friedhof => Mastaba des Nianch-Chnum und Chnum-hotep => Eingangsfront => צstlicher Pfeiler => Szene 1.2

Scents - incense and perfume[12] Scents - incense and perfume


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Offsite links (Opening a new window)
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Medicine in Ancient EgyptΑρχαία Αιγυπτιακή Ιατρική: Καλλυντικά, Χρήση, a translation of this page into Greek, by Nikolaos Zinas
-[1] Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt
-[2] Menstruation, Menstrual Hygiene and Woman's Health in Ancient Egypt
-[6] Beauty secrets of ancient Egypt
-Wig of human hair , 18th dynasty (British Museum)
-Glass kohl tube in the form of a palm column, 18th dynasty (British Museum)
-Wooden cosmetic pot of Ahmose of Peniati , 18th dynasty (British Museum)
-Black steatite statuette of a girl holding a kohl pot , 12th dynasty (British Museum)
-Shell cosmetic container, 7th century BCE (British Museum)
-Crystals give clues to ancient cosmetics by Katie Pennicott
-Combs (Brian Yare's website)
-Cosmetic Recipes and Make-up Manufacturing in Ancient Egypt (at

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