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  • Writer's pictureFiona McNeill

My 'Dead Pig' Complexion

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

We have been measuring the colour and light reflecting properties of white lead makeup using pigskin. This is not ideal. I would have preferred to use something that better matches the optical properties of human skin. We do, after all, want to know what it looked like when worn by women.

However, after playing around with makeup on different materials, we realized that optical properties weren’t the only thing that needed to match human skin. We needed the makeup to spread and coat the skin like it does on a woman’s face. Liquid makeups pooled and set unevenly on some plastics we tested. We had trouble with waxy makeup balling up and refusing to spread. We thought about gels but knew that spreading waxy makeups in thin even layers was going to be a nightmare.

So, we went back to pigskin, because when we looked to see how modern makeup spread on the pigskin, we found it spread like it would have on a woman’s skin. The big question, however, was how close a match was the colour and scattering properties of pigskin to human skin?

The only way to find out was to compare with a living human’s skin. A rule in my lab is that I am always the first guinea pig. The spectrometer was placed on my forearm. We measured the light reflected back, using a light whose colour was matched to daylight.

I had always thought that my skin was slightly pink and maybe slightly yellow. Much to my horror, I discovered I am ever so slightly green and yellow. I am very nearly the colour of a dead pig. This possibly explains why I always reach for a very pinky blush in winter. I want to look alive.

We have had lots of fun with our spectrometer and not just with skin colour. We made one makeup with olive oil. When we tested it, we saw absorption we didn’t expect. It took us a few seconds to realise it was absorption by chlorophyll. The olive oil was ever so slightly green! There were a lot of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ of nerdy excitement in the lab that day.

Of course, all of our experiments with light are to answer one question. What did lead makeup really look like? We are at an early stage, but so far we are finding out that it can be quite subtle and it is usually a ‘warmer’ colour than modern versions of 18th century recipes which substitute titanium for the lead. I'm beginning to think that some lead makeup probably looked quite lovely!

Two pages have been added to the main website under the Science tab. One ‘Absorbing lead through skin’ gives some more details on how we are measuring how toxic white lead makeup might be. The other ‘The look of lead makeup’ describes how we are studying what white lead makeup looked like.

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