Through much of European history, pale skin was considered one of the most important standards of beauty, particularly for women. It tied into social structure and a strictly hierarchical class system. If a lady was porcelain-skinned, it meant she was wealthy enough not to have to work outside. Suntans were for peasants, basically. But since flawless alabaster skin was considered a pinnacle of beauty, plenty of noble ladies still took further troubles to whiten their skin, using a makeup paste called ceruse.
Bad Decision: Using ceruse
The best ceruse, producing the whitest effect, came from Venice. It was in paste form, and would be applied to the face with a damp cloth, blending it over the skin in an even layer. In order to make it stay better, women would sometimes mix it with egg white. The egg white would crack under too much facial movement, however, so smiling was strictly off limits if ceruse had been applied in such a stiff mask.
No matter where the ceruse had been imported from though, it contained white lead. It was highly toxic on human skin, often causing skin irritations, which then required more ceruse to cover up. It caused a horrifying array of other problems as well. Symptoms of lead poisoning range from gastrointestinal problems, nausea, muscle pain, kidney issues, cardiovascular issues, and nervous system problems, and loss of hearing. If you can think of a symptom, lead poisoning can probably cause it. Some of the symptoms, like the skin irritations, probably would have caused the wearer to rely more heavily on ceruse. Resulting insomnia and sleep disturbance would have caused dark under-eye circles, for example.
As if none of this is bad enough, ceruse also tended to have a depilatory effect, meaning that some chronic users lost their eyebrows. To compensate they wore fake ones made of – wait for it – mouse fur.
Other forms of makeup could be toxic as well, including lip rouge, which often contained mercury. Although some upper-class, fashionable men throughout history undoubtedly wore ceruse at times at well, its ravages took a greater toll on women, who were more likely to regularly wear the cosmetic. However, it had its popularity with men as well, particularly cabinetmakers, who used the paste to fill the porous open grain of oak planks. Truly an all-purpose invention!
Famous wearers of ceruse include Queen Elizabeth I, who began wearing it after contracting smallpox around the age of twenty-nine. She relied on ceruse to hide the scars, and later, to hide the corrosion caused by the poisonous paste. Prolonged use of the cosmetic is generally believed to be culpable in her death in 1603.
A hundred years later (clearly the lesson of ceruse’s danger hadn’t fully sunk into the collective consciousness yet), Maria Gunning, famed beauty and the Countess of Coventry, also wore it regularly. As it gradually ate her skin away, she wore it even more. She died of lead poisoning at the shockingly young age of twenty-seven, in 1760.
Outcome: Creation of a vicious cycle of requiring more ceruse to hide its ravages, nearly every symptom imaginable, death from lead poisoning.
From our current perspective in history, it’s easy to look back and scoff a little that people used such a toxic substance for centuries, but medicine wasn’t as advanced to understand some of the internal symptoms, like renal issues and nervous system issues. Hindsight makes all the difference. Let’s hope our future descendants won’t look back on some of our cosmetic inventions with similar shock.
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