Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Docent Note: Egyptian Cosmetics and Hygiene, To Live Forever: Egyptian Treasures from the Brooklyn Museum

by Joan Elder

Egyptian Cosmetics
Cosmetics, discovered in tombs and on the bodies of both men and women, have been found dating back to 4,000 B.C. They served ornamental as well as spiritual and medicinal purposes.

Implements: Combs, hairpins, mirrors, makeup boxes/pots/bowls, tubes for kohl, applicators, etc.

Ingredients: Most cosmetics were mixed in fats, oils (especially from nuts), bees wax and similar compounds. The minerals used were from a variety of colored earth, stones and ores. Costly lapis lazuli and malachite were imported. Some ingredients were questionable, such as fly dung. Oils were used, with or without added ingredients, to protect the skin and to treat skin diseases.

The rich employed "face painters" to apply their makeup. They did not like dark skin, which was natural to them, and often used white foundation. There were special anti-aging creams, oil based with various infusions from plant materials. Most Egyptians didn't live much past their 40's, but their skin tended to wrinkle from the sun.

Eyes: The most widely used eye makeup was kohl, a compound of galena, a grey lead sulfide ore, combined with soot, burnt almonds and other ingredients. Black eye liner protected from glare. Also used was a green makeup madefrom imported malachite. Unadorned eyes were considered vulnerable to the evil eye. The adorned eye was also believed sacred to the gods.
Lips/Cheeks: Lips were colored blue-black or red. Red ochre for rouge.
Feet, hands and nails: Evidence of henna, a plant-derived dye used today on hair and skin, was discovered in tombs in about 1500 B.C. It was used to tint the nails and also to adorn the feet of royalty with various designs.

Egyptian Hygiene [Source: Herodotus, a Greek historian who lived in the fifth century B.C.]

Bathing: The rich bathed often; we don't really know too much about the poorer classes, but there were canals and, of course, the Nile, where one might bathe. One had to watch for crocodiles. Those who did bathe used natron for soap or a paste of ash or clay mixed with oils. A papyrus from 1500 B.C. tell of mixing vegetable oils with alkaline salts to cure and/or prevent skin diseases.

Most people walked barefoot and floors of homes were compacted dirt. Many homes had foot baths and some of the rich actually had bathtubs. Wash basins were commonplace. There would often be a jug of salt solutions nearby for cleansing as well as sand for scouring. Herodotus claimed that most people washed upon arising as well as before and after meals. Lice were a problem and the entire body was often shaved. Oils were also used to kill body lice. Physician's recipes for deodorants have been found. One recommends mixing incense, myrrh, lettuce and fruit of the n(?) plant and rubbing it all over the body.

Herodotus also tells us that the white linen garments commonly worn were carefully washed and bleached in the sun.

Incense and Perfumes
The Egyptians loved pleasant smells which they associated with the gods. Perfumes were a large export item. They were oil based and scented with roots, spices such as cinnamon, flowers and bitter almond. Balls of perfumed wax were sometimes worn on women's heads and allowed to melt in the heat. Incense was widely used, mostly frankincense, myrrh and fragrant woods.