Cosmetics and perfumes were an important part of life for both sexes in ancient Egypt; they helped to create the desired body image. Perfumed salves were used daily, as was eye makeup, as part of a hygienic regimen designed to improve health as well as appearance. So important were these items that they were carried forth to the afterlife: cosmetic aids were applied to the bodies of the dead during mummification, and scents were a necessary part of the burial process. No Egyptian hoping for a complete and proper burial would have thought of entering the afterlife without the “seven sacred oils.” When ancient thieves rifled the tomb of Tutankhamen, they took the unguents and left behind the calcite vases in which they had been stored. Mirrors, kohl holders, and perfume containers were standard burial equipment for both sexes. Formulas from medical and other texts also attest to the importance of personal appearance. For example, recipes have survived with instructions on how to prevent hair loss or remove wrinkles.

Personal Hygiene

The most important element of personal hygiene was always cleanliness, achieved by frequent washing or bathing. Priests had to wash daily, or more often, to remain ritually pure. Upper-class houses of the New Kingdom were equipped with bathrooms, usually consisting of a room or alcove equipped with a stone slab on which people might kneel or stand while water was poured over them from above.

Soap, as it is known today, did not exist. Modern soap is made of fat and lye obtained by pouring water over hardwood ash. Given the lack of hardwood trees in Egypt and surrounding countries, ancient inhabitants of the Nile Valley had to find other cleansers. Thus, instead of soap, ancient Egyptians compounded “body scrubs” of salt, natron, and honey to cleanse the body. Recipes for these cleansers are found in medical papyri. One such cleanser, from the back of the Edwin Smith Medical Papyrus, also includes calcite (Egyptian alabaster) granules. In the burial effects of the minor wives of Thutmose III, pots of “cleansing cream,” consisting of vegetable oils or animal fat and lime (CaO), were found. Natron could also be used alone as a cleanser. (Although natron was used in mummification, its use as a skin cleanser is not as unlikely as it might seem: some modern bath cubes consist of talc, scent, calcium carbonate, and calcium bicarbonate, the latter two being the chief components of natron.) After cleansing, the skin would need to be moisturized with unguents and scented oils to keep it from drying out in Egypt's arid climate.

Perfumes and Unguents

In modern parlance, a “perfume” is made of essential oils in an alcohol base. Distillation of pure alcohol was unknown in pharaonic times; “perfume” or “cologne” as such did not exist in ancient Egypt. Instead, oils and fats were impregnated with the essences of various plants. It is almost impossible to tell from what substances these extracts were made, since the essential oils have not survived in extant samples of unguents. Scholars can only reconstruct the ingredients from images in tombs, recipes for scent from the Greco-Roman period, and knowledge of the raw materials available to pharaonic perfumers.

The plants used to scent pharaonic perfumed oils most likely included the water lily (lotus) and the flowers of the henna plant. Two varieties of water lily, (Nymphaea caerulea and N. lotus), are denoted (inaccurately) by Egyptologists with the single term “lotus.” Nymphaea was a supremely important plant for the ancient Egyptians, used as decorative element, food, and medicine, and replete with religious symbolism. Its scent was supposedly that of the sweat of the gods; its opening and closing mimicked the pattern of life and rebirth. It has been suggested that plant's essence, dissolved in wine, was used as an intoxicant.

The flowers of the henna plant (Lawsonia inermis) also have a strong scent, which would have been used in perfumes, as might other fragrant flowers such as the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum). Representations of perfume-making from the Late period show a plant resembling the Madonna lily being picked and pressed to extract its essence.

Other scented substances—cedar wood, cinnamon bark, resins, herbs (such as thyme), and spices (such as coriander)—would have been used in the creation of unguents and perfumes. The resins in use no doubt included myrrh and frankincense, as well as ladanum or galbanum. Ladanum is derived from the leaves and branches of shrubs of the genus Cistus, which grow in many locations around the Mediterranean. Galbanum, derived from Ferula (a large herb), would have been imported from Persia, possibly by the time of the New Kingdom.

Both the leaves and the bark of the various types of cinnamon tree (Cinnamomum zeylanicum, C. camphora, or C. cassia) may have been utilized in the preparation of unguents and perfumes, certainly by the Roman period, as the use of the term kinamomon in Coptic attests. During the Roman Empire, an extremely expensive scent called malabathron, made with cinnamon, was highly prized. The type of cinnamon bark used was probably C. zeylanicum, which is not native to Egypt but to Ceylon.

Perfume could be created by crushing the aromatic elements (seeds, bark, flowers, leaves, and so on) and infusing oil or fat with them. Three techniques seem to have been in use: enfleurage, in which layers of fat are saturated with perfume from flowers, which would be replaced from time to time; maceration, in which flowers or other plant materials are dipped into fats or oils heated to a temperature of about 65°C, and the mixture then sieved and allowed to cool; and expressing the perfume directly from flowers or fruit. Many types of oils derived from nuts and seeds were available for use as the base of perfumes and unguents, including balanos oil, linseed oil, olive oil, sesame oil, almond oil, and ben oil. Ben oil was derived from the horseradish tree (Moringa oleifera). Castor oil would also have been available, but as it has a strong smell, is unlikely to have been used. Olive oil and almond oil would have been among the most expensive since, although they can grow in Egypt, these trees were not native to the Nile Valley and would have required special cultivation. Almond oil has a particularly sweet smell which would have made it desirable as a base for scent or makeup.

With all of these varying types of vegetable oils available, it is interesting to note that of the thirty-five vases of perfumes found in Tutankhamun's tomb, the only one that had not been emptied was found to contain an unguent based on animal grease. The animal from which the fat came has not been determined. In medical texts from ancient Egypt, however, the fat of geese and the tallow of oxen are most often specified as a base for remedies applied externally. The fat of ducks, sheep, and goats, less expensive and thus more widely available, might also have been used. In one analyzed specimen of unguent, the fatty matter was mixed with another substance, which was tentatively identified as a balsam or resin (such as myrrh). This might have been included to add fragrance or to fix the scent already mixed. A few containers of perfumes from the tomb contained only resin, a Middle Kingdom sample also contained tiny splinters of wood. The latter were almost certainly from a fragrant tree such as cedar.

The sophistication of pharaonic perfumers in creating fragrances should not be underestimated. Both Pliny the Elder and Athenaeus, in fact, claim that Egyptian fragrance was the best in the world, because its scents were the longest lasting and it was the country best suited to the production of perfume (presumably owing to the great number of ingredients available there). A number of ancient authors, such as Pliny, Dioscorides, and Theophrastus, give recipes for perfumes which include several ingredients. For example, a famous perfume from Mendes, one of several mentioned by classical authors, contained balanos oil, cassia, myrrh, and aromatic resins. In his book Concerning Odours, Theophrastus mentions a scent made from cinnamon and myrrh mixed with other, unnamed substances.

One item of pharaonic perfumery that has created discussion among scholars is the cones which appear on the heads of banqueters and others in festive garb during the New Kingdom. These cones are usually believed to have been made of scented fat, probably ox tallow impregnated with myrrh, although there has been a recent suggestion that they were made of beeswax. Egyptologists have noted that a similar custom survived among certain Bedouin tribes until the present century, and fat was worn as a hairdressing by Nubian tribes. Egyptologist Rita Freed has suggested that the custom originated as a means of counteracting the drying effect of the sun on hair.

Many unguents and oils were made from expensive or rare substances. Thus, in ancient Egypt most unguents and perfumes would have been easily available only to the rich. The importance of scent to personal hygiene and wellbeing, however, was universal. Unguents and scented oils were an essential part of the daily toilette for all classes throughout Egyptian history because oils and unguents were essential to protect and condition the skin in the dry climate. In fact, the striking workmen of Deir el-Medina listed body oil as one of their demands. Both sexes were advised to rub pellets of ground carob (or juniper) into the skin to act as a deodorant.

Cosmetics and Other Body Modifications

The use of makeup around the eyes was universal in pharaonic Egypt. Even statues of deities were given a fresh daily application of kohl (eye-paint; known in ancient Egypt as msdmt). The use of kohl was regarded as essential to ocular health as well as a necessary enhancement to beauty. Medical recipes often specify kohl, mixed with fat, as one of the remedies for inflamed eyes. So important was the proper application of eye-paint to the concept of beauty that one of the Egyptian words meaning “beautiful”, ʿn, is determined with the hieroglyph of an eye with msdmt applied to the lid.

The color of the kohl used and the areas of the eye to which it was applied varied over time. The oldest samples, found in graves of the Predynastic period, contain galena, a lead ore with a silvery-black sheen. In the Old Kingdom, a green eye-paint made from malachite was used. While black eyepaint was applied to the lashes and rims of the eyes, green eye makeup might be applied across the lids from the bridge of the nose to the outer tips of the eye-brows. By the New Kingdom, green eye-paint is rarely depicted, although samples of eye-paint made from malachite occur in the nineteenth dynasty.

Although galena and malachite were the usual substances, chemical analyses have shown that a variety of materials could be used in kohl: oxide of manganese, brown ocher, carbonate of lead, magnetic oxide of iron, black oxide of copper, and, very rarely, sulphide of antimony or chrysocolla (a copper ore of blue-green color). All of these, except antimony, were produced within Egyptian territories, including Sinai, the Red Sea coast, and Nubia.

The painting of lips and cheeks was another beauty enhancement practiced by ancient Egyptian women. Although the exact ingredients of pharaonic rouge and lip-color are unknown, it is usually thought that they were composed of red ocher in a base of oil or, more likely, animal fat. A paste made from the roots and leaves of henna has also been suggested as a possible colorant, and was also used on fingernails and toenails, a practice suggested by the presence of color on the nails of statues. A few statues of the New Kingdom have reddened nipples, which may represent another use of henna. The oldest representation of a person rouging her cheeks is probably from the eleventh dynasty. A unique representation of a woman painting her lips occurs in the Turin Erotic Papyrus, which dates to the New Kingdom. However, lip-color was probably available earlier and would have been used by women, and perhaps men, from at least the Middle Kingdom.

A number of recipes for wrinkle removal, or “transforming an old man into a youth,” may be found in the Ebers Papyrus and other related medical texts. One of the more complicated preparations, found effective “millions of times,” prescribes the oil from double-cooked fenugreek as a facial cream for men. Another preparation, found in the Ebers Papyrus, uses frankincense, balanos oil, and “rush-nut.” “Gum”—that is, frankincense, balsam, or other tree gum—is a common ingredient in many of these recipes. Forbes (1965) compares some recipes to a modern cold cream containing wax, almond oil, and borax. There was also a preparation that seems to be for acne: it consisted of the fruit of the ksbt-tree and red ocher.

In addition to these temporary modifications of appearance, some ancient Egyptians were tattooed, although the practice seems to have been more or less restricted to women in the pharaonic period. Some predynastic statues also seem to represent tattoos. The hips and upper thighs of those often steatopygous females are covered with a pattern of dots, which may represent either beads or tattoos. A few mummies of later periods also show signs of a pattern of dots covering portions of the torso. The earliest example is the body of a woman called Amunet, priestess of Hathor, who lived during the Middle Kingdom. Other female mummies from the same time period also show tattooed patterns of dots on upper arms and chest. One of these also has a unique decorative scar across her abdomen just above the pubic area. While ornamental scarification was practiced in Nubia, it is not otherwise known in Egypt, and it is not surprising to find that these women were associated with Nubia. Tattoos are rarely represented in Middle Kingdom art, except for small stylized female figurines whose hips and torso are decorated with dots. New Kingdom female musicians depicted in wall paintings and on bowls are occasionally represented with an image of Bes on their thighs; this is presumably a tattoo, and, in fact, a mummified woman from a cemetery at Aksha in Nubia has an abstract image of Bes tattooed on her body. It has been suggested that these are apotropaic markings, although it is equally likely that these musicians were associated with the cults of Bes or Hathor. From the Greco-Roman period, there are textual mentions of men and women with tattoos, but no depictions survive. The tradition of tattooing, however, survived among the Copts, and elderly women with a tattooed pattern of crosses on their foreheads may still be met in Egypt today. The tattoo in ancient Egypt, however, was not a regular feature of the beauty regime and seems to have had a particular association with cultic function.

Cosmetic and Perfume Containers and Implements

Cosmetic and unguent containers were made in almost every material imaginable: faience, glass, stone (especially calcite), clay, and even wood. The vessels that held perfumed ointments often took the form of figures carrying jars or spoons in a variety of shapes. Perfume containers were also made in a variety of media, including glass, stone, and faience. Faience containers might be in the shape of the god Bes, monkeys, or round boxes with decorative lids embellished with figures of frogs or other creatures. A particularly popular form was the teardrop shape known in classical times as the alabastron, from the most popular material used, although glass was also popular. Some other glass perfume and unguent containers of the New Kingdom anticipate Greek vessel forms and can be conveniently called amphoriskoi or krateriskoi.

Cosmetic spoons are flat receptacles for wax or ointment, the exact nature of which has not been determined. They are attested in a bewildering variety of shapes, sizes, and materials. The decorative scheme for many of these spoons falls into one of the most common genres of embellishment for cosmetic items: the use of the nubile female form as a handle. Other cosmetic spoons may be in the form of bound animals, the hollowed-out body of the animal forming the bowl of the spoon. New Kingdom cosmetic spoons sometimes look like young girls swimming after birds or animals. Some scholars believe that these have a symbolic meaning: the girl represents the goddess Nut, and the animal in question symbolizes another deity. When the animal is a goose, Geb, the earth deity and husband of Nut, has been suggested as the deity. The term “cosmetic spoons” may be misnomer for these containers, since they are found in temples as well as tombs, and are not found in conjunction with other items of obvious cosmetic use. According to Lise Manniche, cosmetic spoons are replete with erotic symbolism (as are some of the cosmetic boxes, especially those shaped like monkeys); depictions of naked girls, ducks, and lotus.

Containers for eye-paint often consist of multiple tubes linked together, although they also occur as lidded pots. The multiple-tube kohl containers are occasionally labeled as containing kohl specific to different seasons or “for every day.” This, however, is not the norm. Inscriptions on certain multiple containers indicate that the eye-paints contained within are medicinal in nature and are specific to eye ailments common in certain seasons. Containers that may have held a single type of kohl are made in many materials, including faience, wood, pottery, calcite, diorite, serpentine, and just about every other variety of stone worked by the ancient Egyptians. Many are simple tubes; some have other shapes, such as palm columns. A few containers appear to have been made solely for decorative use, as no residue is found inside. In addition to the containers for eye-paint, shells were used to mix the ingredients, and palettes were made so that the kohl could be ground more finely. The palettes of the Predynastic period onward take a variety of shapes: some are rhomboidal, but others represent stylized flattened animals, such as fish, turtles, and hippopotami. The rhomboidal palettes often show evidence of considerable use, with hollows created by grinding on both sides. Kohl was usually applied with an applicator stick, which might be made of bronze, ivory, glass, stone, or wood.

Mirrors were made from polished metal, often bronze or gold, and were almost always supplied with decorated handles. Pillars, papyrus shapes, and young girls, often holding kittens or ducks, are common motifs for handle ornament. Sometimes the face of the goddess Hathor is incorporated into a handle. As in the case of representations of young girls as handles, the papyrus umbel is retained as the element just below the reflective surface. From Tutankhamun's tomb there is an ankh-shaped golden mirror with matching case. Most mirrors, however, seem to have been kept in linen bags, to judge by the impressions of fabric on the corroded metal of the disk. Because of their resemblance to the sun disk, mirrors were also highly symbolic items used in cultic practice. For example, a group of young girls shown in the Old Kingdom tomb of Mereruka performs a sort of dance in which they apparently attempt to reflect the sun's rays from mirror to mirror.

Professions Connected With Perfumery or Cosmetics

A few professions may be linked to the use and/or production of scent and makeup. Various reliefs show men and women making perfume. They are depicted gathering flowers and then putting them into large bags that are fitted over sticks at either end. The sticks are then turned so that the twisting bags squeeze the essence from the flowers. The earliest representation of perfume-making comes from a Middle Kingdom tomb at Beni Hasan, but most are of later date, from the New Kingdom, Saite period, and Ptolemaic era.

Another profession said to exist in pharaonic times is that of “cosmetician.” There are a few mentions of the title sšt n kdwt attested for New Kingdom women. This is usually understood to mean that this woman applied eye-paint; however, it has recently been argued that other occurrences of this title are to be understood as “female scribe,” which is how one would usually read the term. There are no depictions of women applying cosmetics to other women, although there are a number of reliefs of hairdressers, including a satirical cartoon showing a mouse mistress whose hair is dressed by a cat servant.



  • Bianchi, Robert S. “Tattoo in Ancient Egypt.” In Marks of Civilization. Los Angeles, 1988. A short overview of the tattoo in pharaonic Egypt.
  • Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Egypt's Golden Age: The Art of Living in the New Kingdom, 1558–1085 b.c. Boston, 1982. The catalog of this exhibit, which contained objects from dozens of museums, includes some excellent summaries and examples of ancient Egyptian cosmetic containers and implements.
  • Fletcher, Joanne. Oils and Perfumes of Ancient Egypt. London, 1998. A popular work which discusses the manufacture of perfumes in ancient Egypt and includes recipes for re-creating pharaonic unguents. Samples of three “ancient” scents are included: cedarwood, cinnamon leaf, and water lily (lotus).
  • Forbes, R. J. Studies in Ancient Technology. Vol. 3. 3d ed. Leiden, 1965. Chapter 1 deals with cosmetics and perfumes in Greece and the Near East, as well as in Egypt.
  • Friedman, Florence Dunn, ed. Gifts of the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Faience, London, 1998. Catalog of an exhibition of Egyptian and Nubian faience, which although not specifically dealing with cosmetic and perfume containers, includes many examples of both.
  • Hepper, F. Nigel. Pharaoh's Flowers: The Botanical Treasures of Tutankhamun. London, 1990. An excellent supplement to Manniche's Herbal, offering photographs and botanical drawings of the plants discussed. Although restricted to plant species found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, it offers detailed discussions of the plants in question and, in chapter 2 (“Oils, Resins and Perfumes”), investigations of remains of unguents and related materials.
  • Lucas, A. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries. 4th ed., revised by J. R. Harris. London, 1989. Those interested in the results of chemical analyses of perfumes, cosmetics, and incenses will find chapter 6 most useful.
  • Manniche, Lise. An Ancient Egyptian Herbal. Rev. ed., London, 1999. Although a popular work on the plants used by the ancient Egyptians in medicine, cosmetics, etc., this lists the Latin, English, ancient Egyptian, Coptic, Greek, and modern Egyptian Arabic names for the plants.

Lyn Green