Unlike the tanned skin I desired in the 1980s, throughout much of history, pale skin was considered the highest standard of beauty. A woman with porcelain skin announced to the world that she came from wealth and privilege and didn’t have to work in the fields like a common peasant.
However, many who sought a prized alabaster complexion unwittingly poisoned themselves with a lead based make-up paste known as ceruse that was mixed with vinegar. The paste would be applied to their skin in an even layer with a damp cloth. Oftentimes, the paste was mixed with egg whites to make it last longer. Because hygiene regiments weren’t exactly the same standard as today, it would be common for the ceruse paste to remain on a woman’s skin for weeks at a time. The egg whites would stiffen against their skin, so smiling was strictly off limits as the egg white had a tendency to crack.
Beginning in the 1500s, wealthy women used ceruse to lighten their skin. Made with white lead, ceruse was also used in making paint. It was highly toxic to humans and often caused skin irritations and insomnia, the evidence of which would be hidden by, you guessed it, applying more ceruse paste. Women who wore the toxic make-up often suffered from lead poisoning with symptoms ranging from gastrointestinal problems, nausea, and kidney issues to cardiovascular and nervous system troubles, muscle pain, and even hearing loss. Wearers often lost their eyebrows and compensated by applying fake ones made from moose fur.
Ceruse was still available in France throughout the 1700s. While American women of the same time period also esteemed pale skin, they typically wore less makeup than their European counterparts. There is no evidence that American women applied ceruse to their faces.
But ceruse wasn’t the only toxin women of the era applied to their skin. Cinnabar, known today as mercury sulfide, was a pigment used for painting pottery and would be applied to the cheeks as rouge to give women a healthy, rosy appearance. Wearers often suffered neurological disorders, emotional problems, and peeling skin. The latter causing the afflicted to apply even more makeup to cover up the skin irritation.
England’s Queen Elizabeth I used ceruse to hide her facial scars after contracting small pox. Prolonged use of the poisonous paste is generally believed to have caused her death in 1603. Renowned for her beauty, Maria Gunning, the famed countess of Coventry, also wore ceruse regularly. As it gradually ate away at her skin, she wore even more. She died of lead and mercury poisoning in 1760 at the tender age of twenty-seven.
While it can be easy to judge these cosmetic rituals of the past as preposterous, ore even farcical, many people today turn to injections of Botox, botulinum toxin, a neurotoxic protein produced by the bacterium clostridium botulinum. Botox paralyses facial muscles to diminish the appearance of wrinkles. Use of these products could cause respiratory failure and death. Some studies show a link between these injected toxins and autoimmune diseases, yet according to industry data, more than 6 million Botox treatments are administered each year.
Perhaps we still haven’t learned our lesson.
Join the conversation: What crazy beauty regimens (hopefully not toxic ones) do you subscribe to?