How Ancient Egyptian Cosmetics Influenced Our Beauty Rituals

This article was published together with Artsy, the global system for discovering and collecting artwork. The original article can here be seen. The opinions portrayed in this commentary are those of the writer exclusively. The mysteries of the ancient Egyptians are vast, but their beauty tricks are no secret. Makeup might seem like a modern sensation — one that is continuing to grow into a multi-billion-dollar industry — but makeup products were similarly important to daily life in the ancient world. From the earliest era of the Egyptian empire, women and men from all social classes applied eyeliner liberally, eyeshadow, rouge and lipstick.

The perceived seductiveness of Egyptian civilization has a lot to do with how we’ve glamorized its two most well-known queens: Cleopatra and Nefertiti. In 1963, Elizabeth Taylor defined the fashionable Egyptian look when she portrayed Cleopatra in the eponymous epic. In 2017, Rihanna (herself a makeup magnate) perfected it when she paid tribute to Nefertiti on the cover of Vogue Arabia. In their homages, both beauty icons used saturated blue eyeshadow and thick, dark eyeliner.

Yet historic Egyptians didn’t only apply makeup to enhance their appearances — makeup products also had practical uses, ritual functions, or symbolic meanings. Probably the most processed beauty rituals were carried out at the toilettes of wealthy Egyptian women. An average regimen for such a female living through the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030-1650 B.C.) could have been indulgent, indeed. Before applying any makeup, she would prepare her epidermis first. A detail of a painting from the tomb of Nakht depicting three females at a feast. They wear perfumed cones in their locks and sophisticated necklaces. She might exfoliate with Dead Sea salts or luxuriate in a milk shower — milk-and-honey face masks were popular treatments.

She could apply incense pellets to her underarms as deodorant, and floral- or spice-infused oils to soften her pores and skin. Egyptians also invented a natural method of waxing with an assortment of sugar and honey. Why achieve this many Egyptian statues have broken noses? After all this, a servant would generate the many elements and tools essential to create and apply her makeup. These apparatuses, applicators and containers were themselves luxurious art objects that communicated social status.

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Calcite jars held makeup or unguents and perfumes and storage containers for eye color and natural oils were crafted from expensive materials like cup, silver or semi-precious stones. Siltstone palettes used to crush materials for kohl and eyeshadow were carved to resemble animals, goddesses or young women. Cosmetic Spoon in the Shape of Swimming Woman Holding a Dish, ca. 1390-1352 B.C.

These symbols symbolized rebirth and regeneration, and the work of milling pigments on an pet palette was considered to offer the wearer special capabilities by conquering the creature’s power. The servant would create eyeshadow by mixing powdered malachite with pet vegetable or excess fat natural oils. As the lady sat at her toilette, before a polished bronze “mirror,” the servant would use an extended ivory stick — perhaps carved with an image of the goddess Hathor — to sweep on the rich green pigment.

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