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  • Fiona McNeill

Comparing white lead and modern makeup

In June, I asked Taren and Shaelyn to go to Sephora to buy pale foundation makeup. I think they thought it was the best lab task ever! While this sounds like playing, it was science. We wanted to be able to understand modern makeup colours and how they changed skin colour. We knew this would help us understand white lead makeup.


Shaelyn and Taren made some very thoughtful decisions about the shade and type of makeup. They chose some makeups that were full coverage. They chose some that were a fine coverage. They chose some foundations that were particularly pale shades. And they chose some that were noted for being reflective and shimmery.


This chart shows some measurements of a modern makeup on a woman’s skin and compares them to measurements of a simple lead white recipe on pigskin.

We measured the colour of a woman’s forearm skin several times. We chose the forearm because it is a flat, smooth skin surface. Even in summer, forearm skin stays pale. We did repeat measurements because we wanted to know how much the perceived colour of forearm skin could vary from spot to spot. We then put makeup on that woman’s forearm. The makeup shown here is a pale shade of Two Faced Born This Way. We performed repeat measurements of the colour of the skin plus the makeup, again to see how much the perceived colour could vary. We then also measured a thick sample of the makeup. We did this by pouring a thick layer of foundation into a Petri dish.


On the chart you can see the data points from the women’s skin, the woman’s skin plus makeup and the makeup itself. You can see that as makeup is applied to the skin, the colour changes along a straight line that lies between the colour of the skin and the colour of the makeup. We would expect that as thicker and thicker layers are added, the colour would move closer and closer to the colour of the sample in the Petri dish.


At a later date, we measured the colour of a piece of fresh pigskin. We painted the pigskin with a thin layer of a white lead makeup. We then measured the colour of the pigskin with the lead-based makeup applied. We measured several pieces of pigskin, each painted with makeup and measured before and after multiple times. I have chosen not to show all of the individual points because the chart gets too cluttered. The average values of those measurements have been added to the chart.


As you can see, the pigskin lies on the colour line where a woman’s skin with a thin layer of modern makeup sits. In addition, this particular white lead recipe is a very close match to a woman’s skin with a light layer of modern makeup. It is ever so slightly more red and slightly less yellow. The makeup in its glass container looked a pale straw yellow, so I am little surprised at the perceived colour on skin.


I am not claiming that this is the colour of all white lead makeup. The colour of this specific makeup is a function of the lead white and the oil I used. It might change a little with the oil type. It might change with the lead white powder size. There are so many things to test! We also need to repeat this experiment with everything being measured on the same day. We will need to ensure the instrument settings are identical.


However, the addition of the lead makeup does not move the skin colour towards white. It moves it toward red. This lead makeup is not a startling snow white. It is very interesting to see that the colour of a thin layer of a real lead makeup appears to be quite close to the colour of a women's skin wearing a light shade of a modern makeup.

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