What Was Hygiene Like In Ancient Egypt?

Given the elaborately stocked tombs and hieroglyphics depicting people in eye makeup and crisp linen outfits, it appears hygiene was important to ancient Egyptian society. While Egyptians did have an obsession with cleanliness and a desire to appear aesthetically perfect, the methods they used to beautify and cleanse themselves were limited to what they had to work with. Many things modern societies have come to associate with ancient Egyptians, such as dark eye makeup and wigs, were adopted not only for appearances but also as methods of survival in an area scorched by the sun and an era plagued by insects, vermin, and parasites.

Lacking sanitation and other modern conveniences, societies like ancient Egypt had to get creative and resourceful to survive. The Egyptians' use of makeup and methods of cleaning bodies helped inspire many of the soaps, cosmetics, and perfumes popularized in later eras. The biggest quality-of-life variable for ancient Egyptians was social class. Whether they owned a toilet or had to bathe (among other things) in a crocodile-infested river, ancient Egyptians had a great number of hygienic idiosyncrasies that made their society unique.

  • People Relieved Themselves Outdoors, As Only The Wealthy Owned Toilets
    Photo: Anonymous Egyptian tomb artist(s) / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    People Relieved Themselves Outdoors, As Only The Wealthy Owned Toilets

    Many of the toilets owned by wealthy Egyptians featured seats made of limestone. The stone sat on top of a box filled with sand, which someone had the unfortunate job of emptying. Those who could not afford such luxuries relieved themselves outdoors, often in a hole they dug in the ground. A large number of people used the Nile as their bathroom, despite the fact people also used the river's water to drink, bathe, and wash their clothes.

    Since ancient Egyptians had no sewage system, waste and other garbage often wound up in pits, open fields, or canals, contaminating the river and fields where people grew their food. Despite the Egyptians' efforts towards cleanliness, disease due to unsanitary conditions and vermin, parasites, and insects took many lives each year.

  • Cosmetics Were Applied Daily For Health And Aesthetic Purposes

    Since they provided other benefits besides beauty, cosmetics were used by both men and women in ancient Egypt. After smoothing their skin with oils and face masks of honey or aloe, people applied eyeshadow, mascara, and eyeliner. Eyeliner was popular not only as a beauty statement; the kohl people used to line their eyes also protected their eyes from the sun's glare and repelled flies.

    To make these cosmetics, people ground natural elements such as malachite and galena into a powder, mixed it with fat to create a cream, and then stored the cosmetics in pots. While the wealthy owned decorated pots made of fine materials, the lower classes used simple, cheaper materials to make containers for their cosmetics.

  • They Used Laxatives And Enemas To Cleanse Their Bodies
    Photo: British Museum / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    They Used Laxatives And Enemas To Cleanse Their Bodies

    As demonstrated through their elaborate mummification process, ancient Egyptians were curious about the body and strived to know more about human health. While many doctors also functioned as priests and often attributed sickness to offending the gods, doctors also practiced medicine. They encouraged the use of purgatives or laxatives to help clean the intestines.

    Practiced by many Egyptians three days a month, laxatives were believed to help rid the body of disease. They used castor oil to force waste out of the body, even when they attempted to cure diarrhea. Egyptians also used enemas to cleanse their interiors and employed proto-proctologists to examine their anuses.

  • Only The Very Wealthy Had Indoor Bathing Facilities

    The average Egyptian took a bath or shower every day; however, the methods they used to do so depended on their social class. The wealthiest Egyptians had places to bathe inside their homes. Standing on a stone slab, bathers had basins or jugs full of water carried from the Nile poured on them by their servants. Some upper-class homes had foot baths made of wood, stone, or ceramic which they used to clean their feet since many people didn't wear shoes.

    Egyptians used a natural substance called natron as soap and slathered themselves with moisturizing creams after they bathed to keep their skin soft. Members of the lower classes, which included most of Egyptian society, bathed themselves in the Nile itself.