The art of cosmetics has a fascinating history. They have been used by many cultures throughout history, not just for beautification purposes, but for religion, ritual, and health purposes as well. This was particularly true in Ancient Egypt.
Cosmetics were used from the Pre-dynastic Period (approximately 6000 BCE) and all the way through the Roman Period (30 BCE to 646 CE), and were used regardless of age, gender, or social status. And they weren’t just used for people, but as part of religious ceremonies as well. Even the deceased were anointed with cosmetics and perfumes as part of Egyptian funerary rituals, and cosmetic brushes, grinding palates, and jars were often buried with the deceased for use in the afterlife.
One of the trademarks of Ancient Egyptian art is the elongated framing of eyeliner around the eyes. Kohl eyeliner, or mesdemet, was created with a ground of mixture of galena (a dark grey ore of lead), malachite, cerussite (white lead ore), antimony, black copper oxide, and sometimes laurionite and phosgenite, with oils until they reached a creamy texture. Green malachite was used to create the signature eyeshadow. While many of the ingredients could be produced locally, there were some that had to be imported from other kingdoms like Punt.
A surprising amount of chemistry went into the production of some of these ingredients. Laurionite and phosgenite are not found in nature and had to be produced with what is known as “wet chemistry”, the chemistry of solutions. These compounds are not stable over 170 degrees Celsius, and had to be treated carefully. To create Laurionite, ancient chemists heated the galena to remove the sulfur and form a lead oxide, which was then mixed with water and salt at low temperatures. They continued adding water for approximately seven weeks to keep the pH level neutral. Combining the mixture with ground up natron produced the phosgenite.
But why put in all this effort? Why not just mix powdered charcoal and malachite with oil to make the cosmetics? Modern chemists believe that the Egyptians used Laurionite and phosgenite for medicinal purposes. In such humid and marshy climates, eye diseases like conjunctivitis were very common. A study done in 2010 found that these compounds boosted production of nitric oxide in human skin cells by almost 250%, which is significant as nitric oxide is known to boost the immune system to help fight illness.
The use of body oils was also common among all social statuses. Even poor laborers were often given body oils as part of their wages as a way to keep their bodies hydrated. Moisturizing creams and oils were often made from combinations of honey, olive oil, plant resins, sea salt, wax, and a number of other ingredients, and could be scented with frankincense, myrrh, thyme, marjoram, or fruit essence. They were applied with brushes, examples of which have been found at a number of burial sites. In addition to protecting the skin from the sun, these mixtures were also used to ward off annoying insects.
Henna was another common cosmetic product. Ancient Egyptians used it to dye their hair and paint the finger- and toenails. As with the khol eyeliner and perfumed oils, henna was also applied as part of Egyptian funerary rituals, and has been found on the mummies of pharaohs and other notable ancient rulers, including Alexander the Great.
To make blush and lipstick, the Egyptians relied on red ocher, tinted clay of hydrated iron oxide. After mining the clay they washed it thoroughly to separate the sand from the ocher, then allowed it to dry in the sun. Occasionally they even burned it to enhance the natural red colour.
Egyptian perfumes were famous across the ancient world. They were particularly fond of sweet, spicy scents, and their most popular and best-known scent was called kyphi. Kyphi was made of a blend of myrrh, frankincense, pine resin, cinnamon, cardamon, saffron, juniper, mastic, and mint. Many of the ingredients had to be imported from Punt, so it was incredibly expensive to produce. For this reason it was used primarily in temples as incense burned to honor the gods.
Most other perfumes were made from flowers and herbs that were ground into paste and blended with fat or oil to make a cream, or formed into cones of incense. It has been believed through much of history that bad odors caused illness and good scents chased them away (see the sachets carried by people during the plague in the middle ages). Tomb and temple paintings depict both men and women wearing cones of perfume atop their wigs during special events, which would melt and fill the air with scent as the events went on. Perfume was also rubbed into the skin for health and, supposedly, to ward off curses and ill-wishes.
In fact, so central was perfume and perfume-making to Egyptian culture and economics that they even dedicated a deity to its development. Nefertum was the son of Ptah (a God of creation) and Sekhmet (Goddess of war), and was a god of healing, beauty, perfumes and aromatherapy.