For the ancient Egyptians personal hygiene was an important cultural value. They bathed daily, shaved their heads to prevent lice or other problems, and regularly used cosmetics and perfumes. One’s personal appearance was so important that there are spells in The Egyptian Book of the Dead that one cannot speak in the afterlife if one is not clean and presentable. This is meant in a physical sense.
For example, one is prohibited from saying Spell 125 unless one is “clean, dressed in fresh clothes, shod in white sandals, painted with eye-paint, anointed with the finest oil of myrrh.” The Egyptian Gods and Goddesses are regularly depicted wearing eye make-up, as are the souls of the dead in the afterlife, and cosmetics are among the most common items placed in tombs.
Cosmetics were not only used to enhance personal appearance but also for health. The ingredients used in various ointments, oils, and creams helped soften skin, protect from sunburn, protect the eyes, and helped improve self-esteem. Cosmetics were used beginning in the Predynastic Period in Egypt (c. 6000 – c. 3150 BCE) throughout the entire length of ancient Egyptian civilization. Men and women of all social classes applied cosmetics, although the better products could only be afforded by the wealthy. Higher end cosmetics were manufactured professionally and sold in the marketplace, but lesser quality cosmetics could be home made.
Every household, no matter the class, had some form of a basin and jug used for washing and showering. There were also foot baths, made of stone, faience, ceramic, or wood, for washing the feet. Washing would be done before and after meals, before bed, and upon rising in the morning. Priests were expected to bathe more regularly, but the average Egyptian took showers and baths on a daily basis. After bathing in the morning came the application of a cream, the ancient equivalent of sunblock, and then make-up made from ochre and sometimes mixed with sandalwood, to the face.
In ancient Egypt, the focus was on the eyes, which were outlined with green or black eye paint to emphasize their size and shape. Kohl was created by grinding the natural elements of galena, malachite, and other ingredients into a powder and then mixing them with oil or fat. This cream was then stored in stone or faience pots which were kept in a case of wood, ivory, silver, or other precious metal. Some of the most elaborate items found in tombs and the ruins of homes and palaces are these kohl cases which were intricately carved works of art. Kohl was quite expensive and only available to the upper classes, but the peasant class had their own, cheaper, variation.
Various magical creams, oils, and unguents were used to preserve a youthful appearance and prevent wrinkling. Honey was applied to the skin to help heal and fade scars, and crushed lotus flowers and the oil from various plants such as the papyrus were used in making these applications. In addition to the health benefits of protecting the skin from the sun, these cosmetics would have warded off insects. Creams would be rubbed all over the body and especially sweet-smelling and potent mixtures under the arms and around the legs. Poorer people would also have applied creams, ointments, and some form of deodorant but they would not have been able to afford most perfumes.
The most desirable and expensive perfume was Kyphi. It was made of frankincense, myrrh, mastic, pine resin, cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, juniper, mint, and other herbs and spices. The scent is described as completely elevating with a long lasting aroma. Most of the ingredients were imported from outside of Egypt therefore Kyphi was so rare and expensive that it was primarily used in temples as an incense burned for the gods.
Deodorants were made in the same way as perfumes and were often less fragrant. One recipe from the Hearst Papyrus recommends mixing lettuce, myrrh, incense, and another plant and rubbing the paste on the body to prevent the odor of perspiration. The juices from fruits, mixed with frankincense or other spices such as cinnamon were also used.
Before one left the house for the day, one would put on a wig and clean one’s teeth. Wigs were more comfortable in the arid climate and made personal hygiene easier. They were made in different styles to be worn on separate occasions. As in all other areas of Egyptian life, the wealthy could afford the best wigs which were sometimes braided with jewelry or fine gems. Poorer people wore wigs woven from papyrus plants or shaved their heads and simply wore a fabric head covering.
When returning home at night, the wig would be removed and one would bathe to remove make-up before the evening meal. From morning to evening, cosmetics and personal hygiene were a part of every ancient Egyptian’s daily rituals. Since a primary goal of life was to make one’s personal existence worthy of eternity, care for physical appearance and health was a priority. Life as an eternal journey was the accepted understanding of Egyptian culture. Applying cosmetics, as well using magical creams and fragrances to maintain one’s health and appearance, was necessary not only for a more happy life on earth but for the soul’s eternal form in the next phase of existence.
Mark, Joshua J. “Cosmetics, Perfume, & Hygiene in Ancient Egypt.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. 04 May 2017.
Arab, Sameh M., “Medicine in Ancient Egypt.”
David, R. Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt. (Oxford University Press, 2007).
Goelet, O., et. al. The Egyptian Book of the Dead. (Chronicle Books, 2015).
Lewis, J. E. The Mammoth Book of Eyewitness Ancient Egypt. (Running Press, 2003).
Nardo, D. Living in Ancient Egypt. (Thompson/Gale, 2004).
Strudwick, H. The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. (Metro Books, 2006).
Van De Mieroop, M. A History of Ancient Egypt. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).