In search of whiter complexion, 18th-century European socialites were…

Lead-based Cosmetics Poisoned 18th-century European Socialites In Search Of Whiter Skin

In search of whiter complexion, 18th-century European socialites were poisoned by lead-based cosmetics.

Socialites in the eighteenth century were portrayed as vain, stupid ladies who were poisoned by their white lead cosmetics.
Even as she lay dying, Maria Gunning, the Countess of Coventry, a social hostess noted for her beauty, is claimed to have refused to quit applying foundation containing white lead.

Why would ladies want to wear cosmetics that were killing them knowingly? Was it really worth it to die for beauty? Is it possible that the cosmetics weren’t to blame?

I am a scientist who has spent the last 30 years researching lead poisoning, with a focus on women’s lead poisoning. Women metabolize lead differently than men, and women exposed to lead as toddlers have increased blood lead levels 20 years later. Women exposed to lead are also at risk for hypertension and early menopause.

Because the rumors of white lead makeup poisoning perplexed me, I began researching these cosmetics two years ago.

Techniques from the past

White lead makeup is made by my research group using recipes from the 16th to 19th century. Words like “illuminate,” “radiance,” “glow,” and “luminous” can be seen on the makeup counters of a department store.

You’ll also come across products that claim to minimize shine or blur flaws. These sophisticated products alter the way light reflects off the skin, which is said to improve appearance.

We used an optical spectrometer to look at the hue and intensity of light reflected by white lead cosmetics to see if it had any of these features.

The most startling discovery was that white lead makeup can be incredibly attractive and natural-looking. It is often considerably more subtle and nuanced than the bright white mask that we have seen depicted in movies and theatres.

Exploring the aesthetic and toxicity of 18th-century cosmetics in Dying to be Beautiful.

We put the makeup to the test on pigskin that has been ethically sourced. The pigs we utilize have a pale complexion similar to human skin’s lightest tone, which burns easily and does not tan well. The white lead makeup normally has little effect on the hue of this skin.

White lead is now replaced with titanium oxide. The color difference was significant when we included titanium oxide in the cosmetics preparations. The color scheme shifted to blue, and the makeup was startlingly white. Actors who use makeup that has a titanium replacement and is made from old white lead recipes are wearing the wrong color.

Color shifts

We experimented with various historical makeup recipes to see how the hue would change. One recipe had no discernible color alteration, while another somewhat modified the yellow tones.

Because of its link to fruit and vegetable consumption, adding a yellow tone to pale skin is viewed as more beautiful. A third makeup combination reduced skin redness, which is something that today’s color-correcting foundation makeup tries to address.

All of the white lead makeups we examined increased the quantity of light reflected by the skin, which is known as reflectance. As women age, their skin becomes less reflective, whereas more reflective skin is associated with a youthful appearance.

The makeups specifically increased the skin’s diffuse reflectivity. There are two types of light reflection. For starters, light can be reflected, as in a mirror. It enters at an oblique angle and is reflected at the same oblique angle. This is referred to as specular reflection. Glossy or shiny objects have a high specular reflection.

Second, light can reflect or scatter in a variety of directions off rough surfaces. This is what is known as diffuse reflection. Objects with a lot of diffuse reflection appear blurry or out-of-focus. The white lead makeup’s greater diffuse reflection provides the skin a “softer” appearance, erasing blemishes—another modern cosmetics effect.

The formulations we recreate in our lab produce a soft-focus effect that conceals wrinkles and blemishes, as well as the appearance of youthful, dewy skin.

Lead-based cosmetics poisoned 18th-century European socialites in search of whiter skin

A comparison of bare skin with makeup made with white lead and with titanium dioxide replacing the lead carbonate. Modern recipes that use a titanium replacement look whiter and more opaque than the ‘softer’ yellow-white of lead makeup.

The unattractive cost of beauty

However, there is an unpleasant aspect to beauty: the celebration of white skin. While the overall measured color alterations on pale skin are minor, spectral changes do appear to lighten the skin. These were products that would have improved the skin’s whiteness.

Historians, anthropologists, and sociologists have long been interested in skin whitening and the reasons why people use it. Our research demonstrates how white lead makeup, similar to an earlier type of “no-makeup” makeup, could achieve this in a subtle way.

We’ve also looked into whether certain cosmetic formulas allow the lead to pass through the skin. White lead cannot be absorbed via the skin and is only harmful if consumed or inhaled.

Some lead could diffuse through if the cosmetics formulations modify the structure of the lead or weakened the outer layer of the skin. This would increase the toxicity of certain cosmetic compositions.

According to our findings, there were some variances in skin absorption, implying that some recipes were more harmful than others. It’s possible that some of the recipes were utilized without incident. Other hazardous recipes that killed young ladies were most likely poisonous because the lead was absorbed via the skin.

According to our findings, most white lead cosmetics formulas did not kill 18th-century socialites when absorbed via the skin. However, certain recipes were more hazardous than others.

The most poisonous mixture we’ve seen so far is a mixture of white lead and vinegar, which is supposed to have been utilized by England’s Queen Elizabeth I.

The amount of lead that went through the skin in this mixture was substantially higher than in other formulas. This begs the question of whether some of Elizabeth I’s health issues were caused or exacerbated by lead poisoning.