Death by Vanity – The Quest for Beauty

She had been the 18th century equivalent of Angelina Jolie; a celebrity who caused men to faint in awe of her beauty. Maria Gunning was the eldest of the four daughters of John Gunning of Castlecoote, Co. Roscommon, Ireland, she and two of her sisters were known as the Three Graces, becoming the focus of much attention in London in 1751 as they headed to the capital to become actresses. They enjoyed superstar status with Maria requiring a military escort to protect her from curious onlookers when she went for daily strolls in Hyde Park. But it was Maria Gunning’s beauty regime that led to her nasty demise, as the lead-based make-up she insisted on plastering on daily resulted first in the loss of her looks, then deadly blood poisoning.

maria gunning

The toxic make-up is said to have killed well-known actress Kitty Fisher and even Elizabeth I, who was never seen without her whitened ‘mask of youth’. Maria was labelled the first victim of vanity when she died aged 27 in 1760, her beloved face eaten away by acid. The noxious effects of the lead caused Maria continued skin eruptions which just encouraged her to powder her skin more vigorously to mask the blemishes. She liked to use ceruse, a compound to whiten her skin composed of lead oxide, hydroxide, and carbonate. The lead, unbeknown to her, was poisonous, and the hydroxide and carbonate combined with the moisture in her skin formed acids that slowly ate it away. To redden her lips, she liked mercuric fucus, with the lead and mercury seeping into her blood through the skin that slowly poisoned her.

 Although her account is famous, the history of deadly makeup goes much much deeper in history.

Queen Elizabeth I was a user of ceruse, a mixture of white lead and vinegar that was applied to the face to make the skin appear paler. One of Shakespeare’s most popular sonnets pokes fun at the common metaphors used to describe the ideal beauty:

“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more fair then her lips fair
If snow be white, why then, her breast is dun,
If hair be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks…”

elizabeth i young

It is widely believed the queen died of blood poisoning at the age of 70 in 1603, possibly caused by the noxious ‘Mask of Youth’ she used to achieve that snow white skin. Pale skin was a sign of wealth and class in Elizabethan Britain. A variety of substances were used to make the skin whiter, including ceruse. Ceruse, a lead mixture, was poisonous, and the hydroxide and carbonate combined with the moisture in the skin formed acids that slowly ate it away.

Even is earlier times pale skin was desired and achieved by cerussa, a mixture of white lead and vinegar that was favored by the nobility and by those who could afford it. This white foundation was applied to the neck and bosom as well. The first record of this skin-whitener was found in 1519 in Horman’s “Vulgaria puerorum”, and by the time of Elizabeth’s reign was well-established as an essential item for the fashionable woman. Naturally, spreading lead upon one’s skin caused a variety of skin problems; some authors of the time warned against it, describing how it made the skin “grey and shrivelled”, and suggesting other popular mixtures such a paste of alum and tin ash, sulpher, and a variety of foundations made using boiled egg white, talc, and other white materials as a base. Egg white, uncooked, could also be used to “glaze” the complexion, creating a smooth shell and helping to hide wrinkles.

s1600Young_Woman_Receives_Gifts_From_Venus_and_the_Three_Graces%2C_Botticelli.jpg 1600×1067 píxeles

Once an ideal whiteness was achieved-sometimes complete with false veins traced onto the skin-coloring was applied. Facepaint, generally referred to in period as fucus, came in a variety of reds and was used mainly upon the cheeks and lips. Madder, cochineal, and ochre-based compounds were all used as blush and lip-color, but vermilion (mercuric sulfide) was the most popular choice of the fashionable court lady. Apparently this color could be laid on quite thick; One Elizabethan satirist commented that an artist needed no box of paints to work, but merely a fashionably painted lady standing nearby to use for pigments.

Ancient Egyptians may have been the first to plaster on killer cosmetics. Their exaggerated eye makeup was made of malachite (a green ore of copper), galena (lead sulfide), and, most famously, kohl, a paste made of soot, fatty matter and metal (usually lead, antimony, manganese or copper).

What, aside from chronic eye inflammation, would this mean for the average Egyptian?

“The exposure would eventually lead to irritability, insomnia and mental decrease,” says Dr. Joel Schlessinger, a dermatologist in Omaha, Neb. “The ocular skin is most likely to absorb materials due to its thin, nearly transparent qualities. Couple this with the mucous membranes being a hop, skip and a jump away from the area where cosmetics are applied and you have a potentially serious problem.”

Men and women in ancient Greece took things a step further by slathering lead not just around their eyes, but all over their face. Their white lead face cream, according to a 2001 article in the journal Clinics in Dermatology, was designed to “clear complexions of blemishes and to improve the color and texture of the skin” and was such a big hit that lead-based face masks soon became all the rage.

roman women makeup

Despite lead’s health hazards, ranging from skin ruptures to madness to infertility, upper-crust Romans went on to use white lead (or cerussa, the key ingredient in those once-popular lead paints) to lighten their faces, then topped that off with a bit of red lead (or minium, currently used in the manufacture of batteries and rust-proof paint) for that “healthy” rose glow. Lead was also a major ingredient in the hair dyes of the day, either intentionally or otherwise. According to scholars, the place was lousy with lead and some have conjectured that lead-lined viaducts, cooking pots and wine vessels — and the resultant poisoning —  helped bring about the fall of the empire.

roman pompeii

Of course, the use of white lead in ancient Rome paled in comparison to the workout it got during the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The “dead white” look was tres chic back then and as a result men and women painted their faces with a mixture of white lead and vinegar, peeled their skin with white lead and sublimate of mercury and used lead sulfate to remove their freckles

Lucrezia_Borgia by Bartolomeo Veneziano

According to Kevin Jones, curator at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising Museum in Los Angeles, the use of cosmetics packed with lead, mercury, arsenic and other dangerous elements made for a particularly vicious cycle. “People would put whitening on their skin and over time, it would eat the skin away, causing all sorts of scarring,” he says. “And the way they covered that up was to apply thicker amounts of the makeup, which would then exacerbate the situation. It was a horrible process — once you got started you couldn’t stop.”

The worst, however, was not over. In 1869, the American Medical Association published a paper entitled “Three Cases of Lead Palsy from the Use of a Cosmetic Called ‘Laird’s Bloom of Youth’” which outlined the symptoms (fatigue, weight loss, nausea, headaches, muscle atrophy, paralysis, etc.) caused by the regular use of the much-touted skin whitening lotion, advertised as a “delightful and harmless toilet preparation” which, incidentally, contained lead acetate and carbonate. Other popular blooms, balms, powders and potions of the 19th and early 20th century such as Berry’s Freckle Ointment, Milk of Roses, Snow White Enamel and Flake White contained mercury, lead, carbolic acid, mercuric chloride and a handful of other “delightful” corrosives.
In 1936, Ruth DeForest Lamb, chief education officer of the FDA, published a collection of these tragic tales of botched beauty in her book “American Chamber of Horrors,” a move that helped bring about the eventual passage of the revamped Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938. Among other things, the new law brought cosmetics and medical devices under FDA control. Further safety measures followed, such as the FDA’s 1977 requirement that U.S. cosmetic manufacturers list ingredients on the label.

“Back in the day, there were high acute exposures of lead in cosmetics because they didn’t know better,” says Malkan, cofounder of Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. “But we know better now and unfortunately, there’s still lead in lipstick and mercury in some mascaras. We’re also being exposed to chemicals like phthalates many times a day through personal care products like shampoos, face creams, fragrances, aftershaves, deodorants.”

The repeated cumulative exposures to multiple toxic chemicals is a “different way to look at it than back in the day,” Malkan says, but it’s “what we’re most worried about now.”

What can you do now? You can use the Environmental Working Group’s database to enter the names of the products you use and view the information on their toxicity here

You can also switch your product array and begin purchasing small batch bath/beauty items with organic, natural, and non-toxic ingredients like the historical ones I sell here:

Or the botanists modern ones here:

Or these cool historic ones: