Ancient Egyptian Beauty Secrets

History and Traditions
Ancient Egyptian
Ancient Egyptians were pioneers in several fields, including the field of beauty, in which they excelled
Ancient Egyptians were pioneers in several fields, including the field of beauty, in which they excelled

Cleanliness and beautification were considered as essential practices in ancient Egyptian society. Ancient Egyptians were pioneers in several fields, including the field of beauty, in which they excelled.

Hygiene was of the utmost importance in ancient Egypt, especially in the upper classes, and women who had the money for it would use a cleansing paste made out of water and natron, which is found in sodium bicarbonate or sodium carbonate. Oils were considered essential, even for lower class women, for the protection of the skin and hair from the hot, dry climate. Oils were also used as perfumes.

Cosmetics played an important role in the beautification process. Eye make-up was especially important, not only for enhancing one’s beauty but also for its medicinal and magical functions. Green eye make-up, which symbolized fertility, was made from the copper ore known as malachite, while dark gray eye paint was derived from a lead ore known as galena. In addition to its disinfectant properties, galena was thought to ward off the evil eye from its wearer.

Kohl paste, which was used by both men and women, was made from a variety of compounds. Green malachite or jasper mixed with water and fat was the most common combination used. Galena and sometimes lapis lazuli were used as an eye treatment and were also called kohl. Kohl also served as a protection for the eyes against the sun and dust. Henna and red ochre combined with fats and oils were used for coloring the cheeks or lips, whereas orange colored rouge was made using iron oxides.

Hair and Wigs in Ancient Egypt

They wore elaborate wigs, which they dyed a variety of colors

In ancient Egypt thick hair was favored, and although common women kept their own hair, those of higher status had the whole head and body shaved for hygienic purposes to prevent infestations with lice; it was also more comfortable in the hot summer climate to shave the head. However, they did not prefer the shaven look but instead wore elaborate wigs, which they dyed a variety of colors, including blue, green, blond, and gold, though black was the favored color for wigs.

The wigs were made using human and animal hairs, together with plant fibers. Around 300 strands were used for each wig, and the strands were kept in place using pomade made from wax. The wigs were frequently scented with perfumes and were usually divided into three sections, two on either side and one down the back.

The Egyptians also used wigs to defy the signs of aging and balding. They used henna to cover up gray hair, and a wide variety of remedies were available for stimulating hair growth in bald men. Some of these included the application to the scalp of fats derived from ibex, crocodiles, snakes, lions, geese, cats and goats. A number of oils such as rosemary oil, castor oil, and almond oil were used to facilitate hair growth. Bald spots were also smeared with chopped lettuce.

Ancient Egyptian Jewelry

A wide range of minerals were used in the making of jewelry

The ancient Egyptians, who loved ornamentation, were exceptional and innovative jewelry makers. Jewelry was believed to have magical and spiritual properties and was thought to protect its wearer. The minerals and metals used in the jewelry were not chosen arbitrarily; rather they were identified with certain deities or with particular therapeutic and spiritual values.

A wide range of minerals, such as cornelian, amethyst, onyx, jasper and quartz crystal, were used in the making of jewelry. It is not clear how these stones were classified by the ancient Egyptians or which stones were considered precious and which were not. However, it is known that there was a connection between economic value and availability of the stones.

With the invention of glass, the manufacture of glass beads by the Egyptians and their incorporation into jewelry became an art in itself. The glass beads were so fabulously perfected that it may sometimes be difficult to make a distinction between the imitation and genuine pearls, emeralds and tigers-eye.

Glass beads were made in a variety of colors and shapes

Glass beads were made in a variety of colors and shapes. Blue beads were created by adding cobalt to the basic formula of silica, soda and lime. Copper was used for green, tin for milky white, and gold was added to make the beads red. The readiness to add gold during the making of the glass suggests that the beads were not simply considered as substitutes for precious stones but were thought of as being of value themselves.

The value given to these glass beads can also be seen from certain excavated pieces of jewelry such as King Tutankhamun’s “necklace of the sun” which was formed of glass beads together with ones of gold and carnelian. This and similar pieces of jewelry found in tombs led to the debate among scholars as to whether glass jewelry was considered to be of equal value or even exceeded the value of the “real thing” or if it was merely used to outwit tomb robbers.

It is truly amazing how advanced the ancient Egyptians became in both jewelry craft and beautification. Ancient formulas have even been discovered to treat several conditions such as for wrinkles, stretch marks and scarring. It is difficult to imagine such sophistication existing some 4,000 years ago.

Aisha El-Awady  has a bachelor’s degree in medicine from Cairo University and is currently working as instructor of Parasitology in the Faculty of Medicine.

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