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With all of the hype around ‘clean beauty’ and ‘free from’ claims scaring consumers away from otherwise perfectly safe and even enhanced performance synthetic cosmetic ingredients, I thought this blog post would make an interesting read to explain where some of the ridiculousness of ‘toxic beauty’ started. This blog is going to go far beyond the well known ‘venetian ceruse’ and look at all the types of beauty care available to women of the day.
You may also be aware of the popularity of using ‘natural’ ingredients in skincare and make-up, so I thought this would be great time to also compare the ‘naturals’ of the past with the far advanced options we have today, and dispel a few myths surrounding both past and present uses of skincare and make-up.
First, just about everyone who knows about Queen Elizabeth I also knows she used, and eventually died of, lead poisoning from the ‘venetian ceruse’ she used daily to make her face white and hide her smallpox scars. Venetian ceruse, if you weren’t aware, was a toxic mixture of vinegar and lead. Lead is a banned substance in make up today, (you can see lead is a prohibited substance under the EU Cosmetic Regulations 1223/2009 Annex II Entry 289 here. For those in the US, you can see only approved colorants here; and if you are in another country then look for an upcoming YouTube video on my channel showing regulations and limits and make sure you follow me @belindacarli.author for more details). In addition, any ingredients where there may be traces of lead from their originating source (including all dyes, iron oxides and even titanium dioxide) are controlled by strict guidelines with required analytical techniques and purity required. (Because of all the rubbish on the internet about the cosmetics industry being unregulated and the so called toxins in our colourants, in case you don’t believe me, you can access these tests and limits here.)
For lipsticks, they used a beeswax and animal fat based balm, coloured with vermillion to make it a bright red (created by adding mercury (prohibited, Annex II, entry 221), to molten sulfur). If you couldn’t afford this type of colourant back in the day, you could boil flower petals and mix this with your own oils and some animal fat to set it into a balm, although this would only provide you with a much more muted colour. Despite what you read, plant compounds don’t give the very bright, fire-truck red that Queen Elizabeth I wore; you could only get that type of colour from the poisonous vermillion.
For their cheeks, a rouge was made in a similar way to the lipsticks, albeit much less colourant used. These products were quite greasy, but it helped combat the drying effects of their cleansers.
For their eyes, kohl was used as an eyeliner. To obtain kohl, they used galena ore, crushed finely then sieved it to obtain small particles. Where you couldn’t afford kohl, you could always use soot from your fireplace, which was laced with a variety of carcinogenic substances resulting from combustion. Eye shadows were mostly in a very hard balm form, richly coloured with a variety of substances including finely crushed gemstones (like lapis lazuli and malachite), combined with lead for opacity and to alter its tone.
They would also use belladonna extract (from deadly nightshade berries) as eyedrops, to dilate their pupils and make their eyes appear more interesting and attractive.
For cleansing their skin, they used highly alkaline soaps. These soaps were made using lard (animal fat) and lye – a highly alkaline water – made from rinsing ash from fires and collecting the liquid. Soaps made today are made from mostly synthetic detergents (in either liquid or solid form) resulting in much more skin friendly products with a pH around 5.5; while those so keen on ‘natural’ soaps today still use the saponification method using sodium hydroxide and plant oils. ‘Naturally’ saponified soap still has a very unfriendly skin pH of 9.5 – 10 at a minimum – less than this and the fatty acid components splits from the bar. This is definitely a case of where synthetic materials are far better than the natural counterparts.
They used finely crushed eggshells to exfoliate their skin; and while not unsafe, we have much more elegant and controlled size skin-scrubs today.
Cleansing was often followed with the application of rosewater, to tone it. This is a safe and beautiful material, and still gets used today. It is the hydrosol of making rose essential oil, you can find out more about making hydrosols with this video.
To moisturise the skin, they would use an oil-based balm (using beeswax and animal fat) or cold cream (made from beeswax, animal fat and borax – borax is now a prohibited substance refer Annex II, entry 1396). To this could be added mercury (also prohibited, Annex II, entry 221), and sometimes sulfur, to whiten the skin. They also used egg-whites to give their skin a smooth, polished appearance. It’s important to point out that the types of emulsifiers we use in modern creams and lotions did not exist – so their creams were much more like greasy balms and would not be at all desirable compared to the beautifully aesthetic products we use today.
To clean their teeth, they often used rags rolled in salt or soot, or sometimes even brandy. They used toothpicks to clean between the teeth, and if they were really lucky, they may have had a miswak stick, from the Salvadora persica tree.
Perfumes were made from plant oils mixed with grain alcohol or animal lard-balms. How they used to make perfumes is actually a key feature in my second fiction book which I’m writing now – stay subscribed to find out more – release will be later in 2022).
Finally, let’s talk about hair care. Their products, compared to what we use today, were HORRIBLE. To wash their hair they used saponified soaps using lard and lye, but would sometimes do a ‘rinse’ using herbal teas of rosemary or lavender. Other herbs may also have been used. Vinegar was often used as a rinse and to lighten it (lemon juice was also used for this purpose), but only the alkaline soaps did the cleaning – leaving the hair feeling terribly dry, rough and matted. (If you want to test this out for yourself, get a ‘natural’ soap and wash your hair with it – it feels terrible).
If you wanted to be extravagant, you could use beaten egg as conditioner – while it didn’t give you the beautifully silky feeling of modern-day conditioners, it would at least give a softer feeling to the hair after those very harsh cleansing soaps. There was no such thing as the types of conditioner ingredients we use today, so your only choice was egg (and that was considered quite extravagant!) or oils were applied to offset that coarse feeling left after washing.
In other words, hair was often left unwashed for prolonged periods because the washing and conditioning process was only marginally better, then stripped clean using lye soaps, followed by the application of oil or animal lard to offset the drying effect of cleaning it. It can’t be compared at all to the types of products we use today – definitely a case of where synthetic ingredients have given us beautiful, safe and effective personal care products.
So, what off all the reports of lead, cadmium or other heavy metals in our lipstick and make-ups of today? There are still a small handful of brands (thankfully, very few) that purchase their colourants from unreputable suppliers, and don’t conduct the necessary testing to comply with these regulations. In other words, they’re using illegal colourants, which makes their end products non-compliant – but thank goodness regulators jump on these products and remove them from the market quickly. Unfortunately, news reports always imply these toxic materials are somehow permitted and common. Hopefully the links above show you that they are not supposed to be there!
Now you know what Queen Elizabeth I used for her personal care and make-up. Thank goodness we have regulations to ensure safe cosmetic products (regardless of what you read on the internet, all compliant skincare is safe), and far more aesthetically advanced ingredients to use in our cosmetic formulas. Next time you use any form of personal care, I hope you now enjoy them even more.