Last updated on April 6th, 2023 at 10:21 pm
Hygiene has been a critical aspect of human health since the beginning of time, and it is key to keeping us healthy and ensuring we avoid disease and illness.
There are several similarities and differences when looking at the hygiene practices of ancient civilizations compared to the present. Among them all, the hygiene practices of the Egyptians stand out.
The ancient Egyptians believed that cleanliness was important for both physical and spiritual well-being, and their hygiene system was complex, encompassing bathing, shaving, dental care, and more.
Although several of their methods may appear primitive in modern times, it is worth noting that some dental hygiene techniques used by the ancient Egyptians are still used today, and many were far beyond their time.
By exploring the hygiene of ancient Egypt, we can better understand the ways in which people have prioritized hygiene, medicine, and health throughout history and continue to do so today.
Not a Hair Out of Place
Throughout ancient Egyptian society, personal hygiene was of the utmost importance and is evidenced, in particular, by how the Egyptians were known for taking quite great care of their hair.
Both men and women regularly shaved their bodies, going to great lengths to pluck any body hair. Various tools such as tweezers, knives, and razors were used for this purpose, and many special oils were used as shaving lotions.
It was also common for men to regularly shave their beards and facial hair, keeping the skin as smooth and hairless as possible.
As for the hair on their heads, Egyptians were even more strict and careful. The elite in ancient Egypt hired their hairdressers and commonly shaved their heads, as was the style for quite a long time.
Women also adhered to the practice of head-shaving, but not always. Depending on the particular dynasty, cultural views of women’s hair differed. However, more often than not, women opted to shave their heads and wear wigs throughout the day.
Not only did wigs protect against lice, but they were comfortable in the dry climate and made personal hygiene easier. Wigs were first made of human hair, but eventually, horse hair was used in wig-making as well.
Wealthy Egyptians, of course, afforded the best wigs, which were sometimes adorned with jewelry, gems, and perfume. However, poorer people from lower classes also wore wigs, theirs typically made from papyrus or other lower-quality materials.
Although it was less common among royals and elites, women who chose to keep their hair instead used extensions carefully woven and knotted with beeswax and resin.
It’s even believed that henna was popularly used to cover and dye gray hairs – they were more like us than we thought.
Clean Teeth and Fresh Breath
Ancient Egyptians also had several methods for maintaining oral hygiene – they brushed their teeth, too!
According to the best evidence, ancient Egyptians invented toothpaste before the toothbrush, and the paste was made of mint, rock salt, pepper, and dried iris flower.
The toothbrush they would come to use was made of a frayed stick, which later developed into a notched stick with plant bristles on end.
Furthermore, to freshen their breath, they used various breath mints – some homemade, others produced and sold by merchants. Made from a mixture of frankincense, cinnamon, melon, pine seeds, and cashews, and commonly mixed with honey, the small candies likely would have made a great after-dinner mint.
Additionally, undiluted natron – a sodium bicarbonate substance – was used as toothpaste and mouthwash. Ancient Egyptians also seemed to have chewed on parsley or similar herbs for fresh breath throughout the day.
Strikingly, modern archaeological findings show little evidence of tooth decay among ancient Egyptians – likely due to their impressive oral hygiene.
Bathing, Washing, and Showering
Aside from dental care, bathing and washing were also quite common and necessary practices in the time of the ancient Egyptians.
Considering the particular climate in which they lived – a combination of the dry desert and humid Nile climate – Egyptians first and foremost saw daily bathing as necessary to cool the body from the blistering heat.
Baths were usually taken in the Nile River or in small ponds. Water was first collected in large containers and then poured on their hands and other parts of the body.
In fact, they may have even had their own kind of shower, consisting of a sieve or a basket through which the water was filtered while they washed.
The homes of the aristocracy and others occasionally had a bath, however, amongst the public, this was definitely a rarity. Whereas, of course, in the royal palace, real bathrooms were often present – a luxury of the rich.
While proper soaps did not exist, many used earth or salts to keep the skin clean and ointments to prevent the harmful effects of the sun or dry wind.
Ancient Egyptians would have also washed their hands before meals, a practice carried out for hygienic reasons just as much as spiritual reasons.
Cosmetics and Makeup
While the wealthy could afford higher-quality products, cosmetics were readily available for everyone. After bathing with foot baths, basins, and jugs, it was customary to apply creams and makeup to one’s body.
First, a sunblock-like cream would be applied to the skin, before then moving to apply a wide variety of makeup, some for vanity, while others had a more hygienic nature.
Kohl, a type of eye makeup, was quite popular across Egypt among both men and women and was produced by blending ground pigments of galena, malachite, and other ingredients with oil or fat. Kohl was certainly a fashion statement, but it also had a therapeutic purpose in protecting the eyes against infections caused by sunlight, dust, or flies.
Historians also believe red ochre, or rouge, was often applied to the face and lips – a sort of blush or lipstick.
Moreover, Egyptians were known to use various oils such as the Egyptian balsam tree, the Moringa or ‘horseradish’ tree, and almond oil for different cosmetics and fragrances.
They used these creams and oils to preserve a youthful appearance and prevent wrinkling, while honey was utilized to heal and fade scars.
Like honey, aloe vera was also highly prized by Ancient Egyptian queens for its skin-soothing properties.
Altogether, the Ancient Egyptians employed quite a wide variety of substances – oils, creams, and more – for both skincare and fashion. Their cosmetic and makeup use achieved two goals simultaneously – improving hygiene while looking their best.
Deodorants and Perfumes
Not unlike their obsession with cosmetics, ancient Egyptians also loved wearing perfumes and deodorants. The most famous of which was a perfume known to us as Kyphi.
Kyphi was an expensive blend made of rare ingredients from the land of Punt, which led it primarily to be used in temples as a sacred incense burned for the gods.
Perfumes were also more regularly produced from flowers, roots, and herbs, which were together ground into a paste and then combined with fat or oil to form a cream.
Cones of incense were another common product and featured highly in Egyptian imagery. And while some images show that these cones would have been worn on their head, letting the fats and oils melt throughout the day, further coating the skin, it’s doubtful that Egyptians actually wore them on their heads, their hieroglyphic depictions notwithstanding.
Deodorants were made in similar processes as perfumes, but recipes were usually for less fragrant products. These included such interesting and exotic ingredients as ostrich eggs, nuts, and crushed tortoise shells mixed with fat, or potentially even blends of lettuce, myrrh, and incense rubbed on the body to prevent body odor and the smell of sweat.
Egyptians also used juices from fruits mixed with spices like cinnamon. Perfumes made by the Egyptians were typically expensive but of high quality, and they were known to add both local and imported products like frankincense, myrrh, rose, lily, iris, orange, lime, cinnamon, and sandalwood.
It’s not entirely understood if the ancient Egyptians made use of these deodorants and perfumes purely for social and cultural reasons, however, some scholars have hypothesized that the aromas could have warded off pests like lice.
Certainly, they would have covered up any unpleasant smells, bodily odors, and many others and would have been welcome in any urban center.
Hygiene Well Beyond its Time
Ancient Egyptian civilization is notable to us today for a myriad of reasons – the enormous pyramids they constructed, the intricate hieroglyphics they left behind to be deciphered, and the hidden burials of their pharaohs and rulers.
It’s notable, however, that their complex hygiene system also stands out to us, today. The rituals and habits of the Egyptians were many years – centuries even – beyond their time and included bathing, shaving, dental care, and sanitation. They believed cleanliness was important for both physical and spiritual well-being.
In exploring the hygiene practices of ancient Egypt, we come away with a much better understanding of how people throughout history have prioritized their own hygiene, medicine, and overall health and how we can also garner inspiration from the past.
Egyptian Civilization – Daily Life – Clothing and Adornment. Canadian Museum of History, https://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/civil/egypt/egcl06e.html.
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