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Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt

As evidenced by the murals and statues they left behind, cosmetics were an essential part of daily life in ancient Egypt. All men and women, from commoners to the pharaoh himself, applied makeup; cosmetics were viewed not only as a decorative necessity, but also as possessing specific health benefits.

Let me preface this piece by stating that, for the ancient Egyptians, cleanliness and personal grooming were of the utmost importance. People of every social class and standing began the day by bathing and often washed up multiple times afterward, primarily before and after meals. Shaving was also a big part of the Egyptian daily routine: in fact, Egyptian men and women often cut their hair extremely short or shaved their heads entirely, preferring to wear wigs and other hair accessories. This was due a few factors: first, some religious/priestly roles required shaved heads, and second, although wigs could be considered a fashion statement, they also served as a way to protect the Egyptians' heads from the harsh desert sun. Additionally, the Egyptians would often apply a special cream made from oils and plant-based materials to their entire bodies, which served as a form of "proto-sunblock"!

When it came to cosmetics, the Egyptians' main focus were the eyes. Both men and women lined their eyes with thick black kohl, a substance made from the mineral galena. Using an applicator stick, the kohl was used to boldly accent and extend the outline of the eyes and the eyebrows to the hairline. Kohl also served as a a protective substance, both shielding the eyes from the sun's glare and protecting against ocular infections caused by dust or insects. Eyeshadow was also particularly popular: made from galena (gray) and malachite (green), the Egyptians often combined the two colors to accent different parts of their eyes and brows. Black kohl and mineral eyeshadow were the two primary types of makeup popular with all ancient Egyptians, but there is some evidence of women applying crushed red ochre to their cheeks as rouge.

Perfume was also incredibly popular among the Egyptians, particularly kyphi, a type of scent made from a combination of frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, saffron, and other spices. Kyphi was incredibly rare and expensive, because many of its ingredients came from the land of Punt (which was pretty hard to get to: just ask Hatshepsut!), so more often than not the Egyptians resorted to using less-pricey perfumes made from local herbs, flowers, and animal fats. In many tomb paintings, Egyptian women are depicted as wearing cones of incense or fat on top of their wigs, but it remains unclear how popular these cones were and how often/where they were worn. Ancient Egyptians were also quite fond of tattoos as a form of bodily decoration, although this trend seems to have been less popular in the New Kingdom and later periods than in the Old and Middle Kingdoms.

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