It is clear from art that for most of ancient Egyptian history Egyptian men were clean shaven. However, men are shown wearing beards in the Early Dynastic and at times into the Middle Kingdom. In later periods only the non-elite are shown unkempt with stubble on their faces. The king wears a long false beard though the elite are clean shaven. In the Egypt Centre we have several tools used for hair removal (see below).
Male priests are often shown with their heads shaven, and very occasionally women priests may also be unshaven. Although elite Egyptians tended to wear wigs these were often placed on top of their real hair.
Body hair is not shown in art and was prohibited for priests, at least in the later periods. It is also possible that body hair was considered undesirable for women (Derchain 1975, 74). For more information on beauty treatments generally in ancient Egypt see Manniche (1999).
So how did the Egyptians remove unwanted hair? Depilation creams as well as razors and tweezers are known. Here are some examples of recipes for depilation creams:
Remedy for removing hairs from any body parts
Boiled bones of the gbg bird, fly dirt, lard, sycamore milk, gum, a lump of salt. Warm. Apply.
(Hearst Papyrus No.155)
It (i.e. the hair) is to be removed as follows: Carapace of a turtle, it shall be cooked, it shall be crushed, it shall be added to fat from the leg of a hippo. One shall anoint therewith, very very very frequently.
(Ebers Papyrus 476)
Blood from the vulva of a female tsm hound.
It should be put on the hair. Apply (?)
(Hearst Papyrus 156)
Razors are also known. It is sometimes unclear however, whether these are razors which would have cut through hair or they were more akin to scrapers used for removing hair after it had been softened. Egyptian toilette equipment usually had more than one type of razor. For much of Egyptian history flint would have been used for cutting hair. A freshly knapped piece of the material is as sharp as a modern razor. However, metal razors are also known. Several are described and illustrated in Petrie (1917, 49-51, pls. LXI, LXII and LXIII).
Razors like the one above are typical of the New Kingdom. This item measures 138mm long. Gift from University of Wales Aberystwyth. See Brovarski et al. 1982, 192 for a similar razor dating to the 18th Dynasty.
The handle from this item is missing. A more complete example can be seen in the Petrie Museum (http://www.digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk/cosmetic/archive/uc40538.jpg)
This type of copper alloy razor was used in the New Kingdom. It has never been established exactly how such items were used but the convex end was probably the cutting end.
This item was part of the MacGregor collection purchased by Welcome in 1922.
These tweezers date to the 18th Dynasty and are from Abydos. They are made from a single piece of metal (copper alloy). They measure 69mm long. The type with pinched top originate in the 18th Dynasty (Capel and Markoe 1996, 75–76).
Tweezers may have been used to remove body hair but were also used during mummification to pull out internal organs etc. (Janot 2000) and were also probably used in medical procedures.
These tweezers were donated to us by the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. More information here.
Brovarski, E. Doll, S.K. and Freed, R.E. eds. (1982), Egypt‘s Golden Age. The Art of Living in the New Kingdom. 1558-1085 BC. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 189-192.
Capel, A., K. and Markoe, G.,E. (eds.), (1996), Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven. Women in Ancient Egypt . New York : Hudson Hills Press.
Derchain, P. (1975), ‘La Perruque et le Cristal’. Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur, 2, 55–74.
Janot, F. (2000), Les Instruments d’Embaumement de l’Égypte ancienne. Cairo : Institut français d’archéologie orientale.
Manniche, L. (1999), Sacred Luxuries : Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt . New York : Cornell University Press.
Petrie, W.M.F. (1917), Tools and Weapons. London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt.