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

Worldly people of the eighteenth century have been described as vain and foolish women who have been poisoned by their white lead makeup. The Countess of Coventry, Maria Gunning, a socialite stewardess renowned for her beauty of hers, is said to have refused to stop wearing foundation containing white lead, even though she was dying. Why would women of that era consciously choose to wear makeup that was killing them? Was beauty worth dying for? Or was the trick not to blame?

I am a scientist who has been studying lead poisoning for 30 years, with a particular interest in the exposure of women to lead. My research shows that women metabolize lead differently than men, women exposed to lead as children have elevated blood lead levels 20 years later, and lead exposed women are at risk for hypertension and early menopause.

The stories about white lead makeup poisoning made no sense to me, so two years ago I decided to start studying these cosmetics.

Dying to be Beautiful: Explore the look and toxicity of 18th century makeup.

Historical techniques

My research group makes white lead tricks from recipes dating back to the 16th and 19th centuries. If you look around the makeup counters of a department store, you will see words like “brighten”, “shine”, “glow” and “bright”. You’ll also see products that promise to reduce shine or blur imperfections. These modern products change the way light is reflected from the skin, which is perceived as a beauty enhancement.

We wanted to know if white lead makeup had any of these properties, so we studied the color and level of light reflected from the makeup using an optical spectrometer.

Our most surprising discovery was that white lead makeup can look pretty cute and natural. It doesn’t look like the bright white mask we’ve seen depicted on screens and stages – it’s generally much more subtle and sophisticated.

We test the makeup on ethically sourced pigskin. The pigs we use have a pale complexion that comes very close to the lighter color of human skin, which burns easily and does not tan well. White lead makeup usually doesn’t change the color of this skin much.

Three Petri dishes with naked pig skin, pig skin with titanium based make-up and pig skin with lead make-up.
A comparison between naked skin and makeup based on white lead and with titanium dioxide in place of lead carbonate. Modern recipes using a titanium substitute appear whiter and duller than the “softer” yellow-white of lead makeup.
(FE McNeill), Author provided

Titanium oxide is the modern substitute for white lead. When we used titanium oxide in makeup recipes, the color change was dramatic. There was a shift towards blue and the makeup appeared strikingly white. Actors who wear makeup formulations made from old white lead recipes with a titanium substitute are wearing the wrong color.

Change colour

We tested several historical makeup recipes to see how the color would be affected. One recipe made no measurable changes to the color, while another slightly changed the yellow tones. Adding a yellow tone to pale skin is perceived as more attractive, due to its link with fruit and vegetable consumption. A third makeup blend reduced skin redness, something today’s color correction foundation makeup attempts to correct.

All of the white lead makeups we tested increased the amount of light reflected off the skin, called reflectance. Skin becomes less reflective as women age, and more reflective skin is associated with a youthful complexion.

Specifically, the tricks increased the diffuse reflectance of the skin. The reflection of light occurs in two ways. First, the light can reflect, like from a mirror. It enters at an angle and is reflected in the same angle. We call this mirror reflection. Objects with high specular reflection appear shiny or glossy.

Secondly, the light can reflect or scatter on rough surfaces in different directions. This is a widespread reflection. Objects with high diffuse reflection appear blurry or slightly out of focus. The increased diffuse reflectance of white lead make-up gives the skin a “softer” look, smoothing out imperfections, another effect produced by modern cosmetics.

The recipes we recreate in our laboratory create a soft-focus look that blurs wrinkles and imperfections, or the appearance of a young and dewy complexion.

a range of liquid and powder foundations and blushes
Modern makeup promotes skin tone uniformity and luminosity, achieved by altering the reflectance of the skin.
(Shutterstock)

The bad price of beauty

However, beauty has an ugly side: the celebration of white skin. While the overall color changes measured on fair skin are small, the spectral changes make the skin appear lighter. These were products that would enhance the whiteness of the skin.

Historians, anthropologists and sociologists have long studied skin whitening and the reasons people may choose to do so. Our science shows how white lead makeup could achieve this in a subtle way, like an older version of “no makeup” makeup.

We also tested whether certain makeup formulations allow lead to be absorbed through the skin. White lead cannot be absorbed easily through the skin, it is only toxic if ingested or inhaled. However, if makeup formulations changed the shape of the lead or softened the outer layer of the skin, some lead could spread. This would make those makeup formulations more poisonous.

Our research shows some evidence of differences in skin absorption, meaning that some recipes were more toxic than others. Some recipes may have been used with little trouble. Other recipes, which made young women sick to death, were likely so poisonous because the lead was absorbed through the skin.

So far, our research suggests that most white lead makeup recipes probably didn’t kill 18th-century socialites by being absorbed through the skin. But some recipes were more toxic than others.

The most toxic mixture we have observed so far is the very simple formulation said to have been used by Queen Elizabeth I of England: a mixture of white lead and vinegar. This blend passed the lead through the skin in much higher quantities than other recipes. This raises the question of whether it is worth revisiting whether some of Elizabeth I’s health problems were due to or exacerbated by lead poisoning.

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