Egyptian Cosmetics: Protection and Adornment

Ancient musicians and singers, Tomb of Nevothph, Beni-Hassan-el-Qadin | Courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Did you know that the existence of beauty products dates all the way back to 4,000 B.C.E.? In ancient Egypt, eye cosmetics were kept in cylindrical containers made out of either stone, ceramics, or wood for preservation.1 When they were first created, these eye products were used by their people for adornment reasons. However, as time went on, Egyptians developed kohl – a paste which was made up of mainly galena, a mineral form of lead sulfide. They realized this could be used for medicinal purposes as well—causing the quality and quantity of eye cosmetics throughout Egypt to increase drastically.

Ancient Cosmetic Container | Ancient Roman Times | Courtesy of Indianapolis Marion County Public Library

By 2,000 B.C.E. the accustomed eye cosmetic known as kohl was advanced drastically. Scientists have recently used a method called wet chemistry to determine this evolution.1 In addition to kohl being used to add personal sense of style to their faces, it was also a new and quite interesting source of protection. Therefore, both men and women took advantage of kohl.

At first, kohl was not used in the way we use eyeshadow today, but more like eyeliner. An extremely thick ring of eyeliner surrounded the whole eye.3 It also was not only used for beautifying purposes, but also for protection.4 Since the first kohl creation was a very dark black shade, it reflected light off of the dark pigment, protecting the eyes from harmful sun rays. Kohl was used to surround the eyes of both men and women. Simultaneously, kohl’s main ingredient, galena, was known as a disinfectant among the people of Egypt. This led the ancient Egyptian physicians to lean toward kohl as a prescribed drug for various diagnosed eye diseases.1 The Egyptians didn’t necessarily benefit aesthetically through obtaining a whole color palette of kohl. The medicinal side was extremely influential. The galena was mixed with other ingredients, including water, to create pastes of various tones. Among the most popular of these tones was a dark black and a very vibrant green.6

The deep, dark black kohl was created by the mixing of galena and soot. Soot is an extremely flaky substance that contains high amounts of carbon, which gave it the jet-black look.7 The green kohl on the other hand was made up of galena and malachite, a green pigmented rock. This rock was pummeled and mixed with the galena and water, creating a thick, vibrantly colored paste.8

Inlay in the form of an Eye | 1540 – 1070 B.C.E. | Courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum

Although the people of Egypt don’t use kohl the way they used to in 4,000 B.C.E., we can most certainly conclude that where we are today in the cosmetic industry would have definitely been delayed if it weren’t for the Egyptians. Their exploration of cosmetics is the base of our creams, exfoliators, and enhancers that exist on the shelves today.8

 

  1. P. Walter, et. al., “Making Make-Up in Ancient Egypt,” Nature 397, no. 6719 (Feb 11, 1999): 483-484.
  2. P. Walter, et. al., “Making Make-Up in Ancient Egypt,” Nature 397, no. 6719 (Feb 11, 1999): 483-484.
  3.  Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, 2005, s.v. “Western Cosmetics,” by Kathy Peiss.
  4. P. Walter, et. al., “Making Make-Up in Ancient Egypt,” Nature 397, no. 6719 (Feb 11, 1999):: 483-484.
  5. P. Walter, et. al., “Making Make-Up in Ancient Egypt,” Nature 397, no. 6719 (Feb 11, 1999): 483-484.
  6. F.T. Walton, “My Lady’s Toilet,” Greece & Rome 15, no. 44 (May 1946): 69.
  7. Marguerite Johnson, Ovid on Cosmetics: Medicamina Faciei Femineae and Related Texts (United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016): 11.
  8. Zoe Diana Draelos, “Overview: cosmetics and the art of adornment,” Dermatologic Therapy 14, No. 3 (September 2001): 175-177.
  9. Zoe Diana Draelos, “Overview: cosmetics and the art of adornment,” Dermatologic Therapy 14, No. 3 (September 2001): 175-177.

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This Post Has 53 Comments

  1. Avatar

    What an awesome read. I knew that ancient Egyptians used kohl around their eyes but did not know that it was used as eye protection as medicine. I have the bentonite clay that the Egyptians use and I use it as well. They used a lot of stuff, but they are also ones with the thick eyeliner that I would see in movies! Awesome article!

  2. Avatar

    This was a very intriguing article. I never knew that cosmetics played such a large role in the lives of the Egyptian people. It is astounding to hear about the sophistication of this group of people, who we often view as ancient. This was a very short and sweet read that I really enjoyed. I would have never been aware of this aspect of the lives of the early Egyptian people. This was a very cool concept to write about.

  3. Avatar

    What an interesting and informative article. I knew that ancient Egyptians used kohl around their eyes but did not know that it was used as eye protection of as medicine. I have never before considered the reasons for which Egyptians wore makeup. I did not know that kohl was a prescribed drug for various diagnosed eye diseases in the Egyptians time period.

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