How Ancient Greek Hygiene Was Similar To And Different From Today

Although some movies and media depict ancient people as unclean, that’s not entirely accurate. The ancients had hygiene practices, especially one of the most advanced civilizations, the Greeks. Despite not having showers, the Greeks learned how to stay clean with that they had.

Ancient Greeks had hair dye, perfume, and flushing latrines. However, their ingredients, recipes, and habits were different from today. See how different (and similar) ancient Greek hygiene habits were when compared to what we’re used to today.

The Greeks Built Baths

An ancient Greek bathtub is excavated at the Palace of Nestor in Pylos.
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Baths changed and evolved throughout ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks understand that bathing improves health. However, their early baths consisted of quick dips into ice-cold water. Later, the people of Laconica (near Sparta) invented the hot-air bath.

Hot-air baths–also called Laconica baths–were warmed with hot coals or rocks. Although the Greeks hardly differentiated between hot and cold baths, steam rooms later became a luxury. Over time, the Greeks built large, public bathhouses throughout the region.

…And Large, Public Bath Houses

Mosaics decorate the floor of ancient Greek public baths.
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Some of the oldest ancient Greek archaeological sites are bathhouses. The Greeks created special chambers for bathing, and they adopted washing bins and foot baths from the Minoans. Baths were often large enough to accommodate multiple people.

Many Greek baths were public, placed next to gymnasiums, pools, or sports arenas. Some bathhouses were separated by sex; others weren’t. However, Plutarch mentioned many smaller, private bathhouses throughout Greece. According to Homer, the Greeks would often offer their baths as an act of hospitality.

The Greeks Covered Their Skin With Chalk

A gymnast rubs chalk powder on his hands.
Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

While many people aim to look tan today, in ancient Greece, pale skin was all the rage. The Greeks used “foundation” on their bodies. Around 200 B.C., women would mix lead powder and rub it on themselves. As you may have guessed, this mixture was toxic. Around 1,000 B.C., they replaced lead with chalk, which was less toxic.

Elite Romans, who preferred lead pastes, eventually suffered from skin disfigurements. Even so, this foundation remained popular through the middle ages, when Italians would cover their faces in lead paint.

They Dyed Their Hair

Art on ancient Greek pottery shows a woman washing her hair.
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Blonde hair was the epitome of beauty in ancient Greece. Both women and men would cover their hair in vinegar, lemon juice, or saffron and lay in the sun to dye it. Many epic figures, including Achilles and Aphrodite, were depicted with blonde hair.

But according to archaeological excavations, black hair dye was also valued in certain areas. The Greeks would combine lead oxide and calcium hydroxide to create a permanent dye. And, yes, that was toxic too.

The Ancient Greeks Had Flushing Latrines

A lepaste, or toilet box, is decorated with a women sitting on a box.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As unlikely as it sounds, the ancient Greeks had flushing facilities. The ancient Minoans invented drains that allowed flowing water to push away excrement. By the first millennium B.C., the Greeks built public restrooms with flushing latrines.

Ancient Greek facilities were nothing more than bench seats with a hole inside. In public restrooms, people sat right next to each other with no walls or dividers. Eventually, even middle-class homes received their own restrooms and flushing toilets.

Hairstyles Reflected Social Status

On this ancient Greek stele, a man touches his hair.
Ashmolean Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Ashmolean Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The ancient Greeks took hairstyling seriously because their hair demonstrated their wealth, position, and social status. Women preferred to grow out their hair; short hair was reserved for slaves and mourners. They would wear it down until they married. Afterward, they would tie it up in braids or a hair net.

Aristocratic men also preferred to grow their hair long. They would tie their hair into a bun and grow long beards. By the time of the Roman Empire, most men preferred shorter styles and clean-shaven faces.

They Used Combs

Ancient combs are displayed in from of ancient Greek hairstyles in a museum.
SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP via Getty Images
SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP via Getty Images

Combs have been around for thousands of years, with the oldest relics dating back 5,000 years in Persia. Archaeologists have recovered bone, ivory, and gold combs from ancient Greek sites. These brushes often had complex engravings of myths and deities.

Combs were prized in ancient Greece and Rome, where lice and infections ran rampant. Because they were relatively expensive, only high-class women and servants owned combs. Many women were even buried with their favorite brushes.

They Chewed Gum

mastic gum
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Ancient cultures from across the world chewed gum in some form, and the Greeks were no exception. They chewed mastic, a plant resin derived from the mastic tree. The Greeks didn’t use mastic for its flavor; they chewed it to help their breath smell fresh and maintain oral health.

The Greeks also used twigs as toothpicks and brushes to promote oral hygiene. By the time of the Roman Empire, the elite had slaves whose sole job was to clean others’ teeth.

They Used Perfumes For Each Part Of The Body

Two ancient Greek perfume bottles are on display at a museum.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The ancient Greeks valued perfumes, and many of their recipes originated in Crete. They used different perfume for each part of the body. For instance, they would rub marjoram through their hair, mint on their arms, oregano oil on the feet, and so on.

For the ancient Greeks, perfume wasn’t just for special occasions. They believed that pleasant scents warded off evil spirits. During funerals, many Greeks were buried with a bottle of perfume for a peaceful transition into death.

Hygiene Was The “Art Of Health”

A statue of the Greek goddess Hygieia stands on top of a fountain.
Jüschke/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Jüschke/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The word hygiene comes from Hygieia, the daughter of Asclepius, the god of medicine. Hygieia was the goddess of health, and Greek physicians dedicated entire schools to the “art of health.”

The Greeks believed that the human body was influenced by the four elements: water, air, fire, and earth. Yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood were believed to cause disease. By restoring “balance” to the body, the Greeks believed that they could remain healthy and fight disease.

Hot Water Has Healing Powers

People bath at a hot spring of Loutraki, Greece.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP via Getty Images
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP via Getty Images

For the Greeks, divinity was closely connected to nature. It’s no surprise that they connected hot water to healing powers. Many of their thermal springs were next to temples. And they weren’t wrong; philosophers such as Plato and Hippocrates noted that hot baths soothed the muscles and skin diseases.

Baths often stood next to gymnasiums to heal athletes after a workout. The Greeks dedicated specific hot springs to heal certain ailments. They would infuse the baths with bay laurel, lavender, and Epsom salts for therapy.

Laconica Steam Baths

greek-bath
Unsplash/Patrick Hendry
Unsplash/Patrick Hendry

Laconica steam baths were circular rooms with a cone roof. The Greeks would heat rocks and place them underneath the floor or use pitchforks to dish them into the water. Sometimes, they would burn bay laurel, juniper, fir, or pine for incense.

The Greeks would pour water on top of hot rocks to create steam. To instigate sweating, they would sometimes rub tea made of peppermint or elderflowers on their bodies. Like saunas, Laconica baths were public.

They Wore Lotion, But Not Like Today’s Lotions

Olive oil pours from a spout.
Patrick Landmann/Getty Images
Patrick Landmann/Getty Images

The ancient Greeks wanted soft skin, but they did not use the same ingredients that we use today. Most commonly, they rubbed olive oil or honey across their body. These ingredients had some scientific merit; honey can heal skin, and olive oil moisturizes it.

Honey and olive oil were believed to lighten the skin, although this has not been proven. Olive oil was considered sacred; the Greeks believed that the first olives originated in Athens, so they used it to clean themselves before a ritual.

They Carried Water From Fountains

A Greek tapestry shows women lining up to fill vases with water from a fountain.
Getty Images
Getty Images

Ancient Greeks did not have a lot of available water beside the ocean. To make things easier, they built wells and fountains in major urban centers. People would carry jugs to the fountain and fill them with water for bathing, washing, and cleaning. They outlawed bathing in the fountains to keep them clean.

Complex drainage systems brought water to city centers. Despite the convenience, men, women, and slaves still had to travel for a while to get water.

Usually, They Did Not Use Soap

A bronze strigil, which the Greeks used to clean themselves, is pictured.
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although people wash their bodies with soap today, the ancient Greeks didn’t have soap. Instead, they would rub their body with a block of clay, pumice, sand, or ashes. Then they would drench themselves in olive oil.

The Greeks used a metal scraper, called a strigil, to remove the muck. This was their way of exfoliating since the muck would remove dead skin as well. Afterward, they would soak in a bath. Because bathing was such an ordeal, the Greeks rarely visited public baths.

…But They May Have Created Soap

Several soap bars shaped like stones are displayed against a black background.
liz west/Flickr
liz west/Flickr

There is some evidence that the Greeks created soap. In the ruins of Pompeii, archaeologists have dug up soap factories. The first soap dates back to 2800 BC, during the Babylonian era. The ancients likely used soap for cleaning tools instead of bathing.

Soap makers mixed ashes and water to create an alkaline, potassium-based substance. They would then combine them with animal fats and oils to form a detergent. Although soaps appeared throughout Greece, they were not common.

Diet Was Considered Part Of Hygiene

A Harari man grinds spices in a mortar and pestle.
Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images
John S Lander/LightRocket via Getty Images

Because the Greeks believed in holistic health, they included diet to be a part of hygiene. Physicians created detailed instructions on when to eat and how to cook food. They carefully considered heating, moisturizing, grilling, broiling, and cooking.

The distinction between hygiene and diet was blurred. Ancient Greek physicians would prescribe certain foods for specific ailments. A “clean” diet was designed to cleanse the body. In fact, the word hygiene was used for medical practices well into the Middle Ages.

They Wore Makeup

Art shows ancient Greek women applying makeup and practicing hygiene.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although the Greeks wore little makeup, they still favored certain products. Charcoal was a popular ingredient for eyeshadow and brow filler. Like the Egyptians, the Greeks favored bold eyes and dark eyebrows or even unibrows.

The ancients also created lipsticks. They used wine, beetroot, red iron, or ocher as a stain to place on the lips and cheeks. Because makeup was expensive, it was usually reserved for the rich. The elite had personal vanities with brushes, spoons, and tweezers for applications.

Body Hair Was “Uncivilized”

Art shows three Greek Tragedians standing in a row.
Christophel Fine Art/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Christophel Fine Art/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The ancient Greeks wanted little body hair, especially on women. Men and women would use razors made from flint or copper. Some would mix beeswax with sugar to create a wax and remove hair with it. When all else failed, they could always pluck.

Women often removed pubic hair for both aesthetic and hygienic reasons. When they visited public baths, they did not want to get lice. In contrast, hair was considered “manly” for men, but many of the elite shaved their faces.

They Cleaned Their Teeth With Twigs

Toothpicks are piled on top of each other.
gaborfejes/Pixabay
gaborfejes/Pixabay

Toothbrushes date back to 3,000 B.C. in ancient Egypt. Like the Egyptians, the Greeks used twigs to scrape their teeth clean. Others would wrap their finger in cotton for a more comfortable tooth-brushing experience.

Ancient Greek toothpaste was quite different than it is today. They expanded upon the Egyptians’ recipe of ground ox hooves, myrrh, pumice, and eggshells. Greeks added crushed bones and oyster shells to create an abrasive toothpaste. The ancients did not brush their teeth every day.