Makeup Tips for Ancient Egyptian Gals

Guest Post by Michelle Moran

We tend to think of cosmetics as feminine perks of the modern life. Women treasure their favorite lipstick colors like gold, protect their skin with anti-aging creams, and spend countless hours in front of the mirror getting their eyeliner just right.

It surprises many people to know that ancient Egyptian women were just as fanatical about their cosmetics. Take a look at the portraits of ancient Egypt and you would be hard-pressed to find a woman (or a man) whose eyes aren't perfectly lined with kohl, whose lips aren't perfectly painted with ochre, or whose long tresses aren't protected from the harsh desert sun by wigs.

A wealthy woman's typical beauty regiment might begin with her waking in the morning and applying incense pellets to her underarms as a form of deodorant. Then, she might sit herself in front of a "mirror" (which was really polished bronze), and call for her servant to bring applets and grinders necessary for applying her daily makeup. Once the pallet was brought, she would watch her servant mix malachite with an oil derived from animal fat to create a eye-shadow. She would close her eyes as her servant applied the green power with sweeps of a small ivory stick carved on one end to look like the goddess Hathor. Then, when the eye-shadow was finished, the lady of the house would sit perfectly still while her servant lined her eyes with black kohl.

While these applications resulted in the beautification of the wearer, they had practical purposes as well. When applied above and beneath the eye, kohl served to protect the eyes from the intense glare of the sun. In fact, the Egyptian word for makeup palette appears to have been taken from their word to protect, which may reference kohl's usefulness outdoors, or may even refer to the belief that outlining the eyes protected the wearer from the dreaded Evil Eye.

Once the lady of the house had on her protective kohl, she might then decide to use red ochre on her lips or dab her wrists and breasts with perfume. Having completed all of this, the lady would then dress for the occasion.

Michelle Moran is author of The Heretic Queen (which is just out!), Nefertiti, and Cleopatra's Daughter (release, 2009).

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  1. Fascinating! Thank you so much for this, Michelle. I've always been interested in ancient Egyptian culture, especially their makeup, wigs, perfumes and jewelry.

    I'm really crossing fingers and hoping I win your book!

    Alison G

  2. Great post Michelle! I have not read your book yet but I have it...I just need some free time to actually do some reading. It was recommended to me by several people and everyone loves it. Congratulations on your success.

    I had never heard of the incense pellets. Do you know what exactly they were made of?

    I have always been fascinated by how advanced ancient Egyptian cultures were. For example, Copper ore, galena,and carbon( the ingredients in their eye make-up) were all antiseptics which protect against germs. Yet the Egyptians had not discovered germs (right?) how did they know the ingredients would protect their eyes??? This has always confused me.

    Also - what is with the wigs? Was it more a fashion thing or was it done for medicinal reasons?

  3. Hi Bearded Lady,

    The incense pellets could have been kyphi (they may also have used carob), and as for the germs - that is correct. But the Egyptians didn't use kohl to keep away the germs, just the glare of the sun and the Evil Eye! Also, many Egyptians shaved their hair entirely to avoided the dreaded plague of lice. They would then wear wigs of either human hair (if they could afford it) or vegetable fibers (if they were very poor).

  4. very interesting. thanks for the response. It's funny how their eye makeup acted as an antiseptic and they didn't even know it.

    Looking forward to your next book...

  5. Very interesting post. I love studying ancient Egypt!

  6. I totally loved this blog post. I also think Egypt is fasinating and I enjoy researching information about the egyptian woman in the ancient times.

  7. hi michelle, i'm molly. i'm doing this hugeegyptian project in school and i found this blog sooo helpful! i'm doing about fashion and achitceture, and i done make up tips in the fashion section and it was sooo helpful! But i have a questionare:-was the men beauty as acurate as the womens? did they get up and call their servants? please respond!

    love, molly xx

  8. Hi Molly,

    I am leaving today for a 2 month research trip, so please forgive the shortness of this response. Yes, men had beauty regimens as well. They had servants to help them put on their sandals and wigs (if they were very wealthy) and do their makeup (kohl).

  9. It took me a couple of hours before I came across your site.Well, this post would be of great help to anyone who would come to read this one. Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts.Smoke Incense


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