How Ancient Egyptian Cosmetics Influenced Our Beauty Rituals

The mysteries of the ancient Egyptians are vast, but their beauty tricks are no secret. Makeup might seem like a modern phenomenon—one that has grown into a trillion-dollar business—but cosmetics were equally important to daily life in the ancient world.

From the earliest era of the Egyptian empire (around 6000 B.C.E.), men and women from all social classes liberally applied eyeliner, eyeshadow, lipstick, and rouge.

The perceived seductiveness of Egyptian civilization has a lot to do with how we’ve glamorized its two most famous queens: Cleopatra and Nefertiti. In 1963, Elizabeth Taylor defined the chic Egyptian look when she portrayed Cleopatra in the eponymous epic.

In 2017, Rihanna (herself a makeup magnate) perfected it when she paid tribute to Nefertiti on the cover of Vogue Arabia. In their homages, both beauty icons wore saturated blue eyeshadow and thick, dark eyeliner.

Yet ancient Egyptians didn’t only apply makeup to enhance their appearances—cosmetics also had practical uses, ritual functions, or symbolic meanings. Still, they took their beauty routines seriously: The hieroglyphic term for makeup artist derives from the root “sesh,” which translates to write or engrave, suggesting that a lot of skill was required to apply kohl or lipstick (as anyone who has tried to emulate beauty tutorials on YouTube can attest).

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