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 52 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I knew that Egyptians used eyeliner because I would see it in movies, but I would have never guessed it was to protect them from the sun’s harmful rays or to prevent eye diseases. It is fascinating to see that eyeliner has been around for such a long time. I also found it interesting how there were different colors of kohl and that it was used by both men and women. Overall, very well written article, good work.

  2. Avatar

    I LOVE MAKEUP! I also love hearing about the creation of new products and why some things are used for certain areas of the face. I remember watching a documentary about a city somewhere near Egypt that still use a mixture of minerals and Kohl in their waterline due to superstitions and for the way it looks. They also be live that the mixture prevents an eye disease that causes the eyes to get dry due to the areas weather.

  3. Avatar

    This article was very interesting to read. As a girl that loves makeup is fascinating to find out how it all started. I always wanted to know the reason as to why Egyptians wore the black eyeliner around their eyes, and this article did a great job explaining that. I didn’t know it was for protection from the sun, definitely learned something new. This article was great. Good job!

  4. Avatar

    I never knew that the kohl eye liner had medicinal benefits, I just assumed it was to imply social status among Egyptians. Knowing that the kohl was more than just an aesthetic pleasure is very interesting because of the era we live in where we now have actual eyeliner used for beauty purposes rather than medicinal benefits.

  5. Avatar

    This was a very interesting article. It was cool to read and find out about how make up first began and where it derived from. The author did a great job of describing that the khol wasn’t mainly for beauty purposes, but instead medicinal. The picture was great too for helping to demonstrate where exactly they placed it. Great job.

  6. Avatar

    Very interesting article. I knew that Egyptians wore eyeliner, but I would have never guessed it was to protect them from the sun’s harmful rays or to prevent eye diseases. It is fascinating to see what used during the time of the Egyptians is still prevalent today. I also found it interesting how there were different colors of kohl, which was used by both men and women. Overall, this was a short yet very fascinating article with a good selection of images.

  7. Avatar

    I knew eye makeup was originated from the Egyptians what I did not know was that they also used for protection; kind of like sunglasses! The article is so interesting, not just for the beauty point of view but how other information that was giving like the other beauty products that later develop from within! The pictures are also fantastic!

  8. Avatar

    I knew that ancient Egyptians were always presented with black eyeliner surrounding their eyes but did not know the purpose or why they did it. I knew that both men and women wore the eyeliner so I knew the purpose could not simply be make up. I definitely did not know that the eyeliner served as protection from the suns rays. It was also interesting to know what their eyeliner was made of and that it actually helped their eyes.

  9. Avatar

    As a previous comment had mentioned, I had thought that wearing eye makeup in Egyptian culture was a sign of fortune and power. Learning that it was actually for protection against the sun was completely brand new. Egyptians were known to be very advanced with cosmetics in a very early time period, and seeing this based on just one item was an interesting focus.

  10. Avatar

    I was always curious about why Egyptians wore black eyeliner all around their eyes, and everytime I assumed that it meant a status of rank or just something that showed they were Egyptian, but never have I thought it was for protection of the eyes. I found this article was really fun to read, because I never thought to really look into the purpose of it. The author really brought the right information for the topic and worded it the right way to make it interesting.

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