What is the evidence that makeup can cause lead poisoning ?
Updated: Dec 10, 2020
It is true that people can be seriously lead poisoned from makeup. In the last few decades, a number of medical case studies have reported women and children being poisoned after using the traditional eyeliner, kohl.
Kohl has been used throughout the Middle East and Asia since ancient times. Historically, it was made from the black, shiny mineral, galena. This is a natural form of lead sulphide. A study of ancient Egyptian kohl containers held in the Louvre’s collection found that the majority of them had contained makeup composed of lead.
The use of kohl was probably not just aesthetic or cultural. Kohl made from galena has been shown to have antibacterial properties. Its use probably helped prevent eye infections in a hot and dusty environment.
Since kohl is used around the eyes, it is easy for me to see how it may be so toxic. I only ever use eyeliner outside of my lashes, never inside the wet line of my eye. However, when I’m taking eye make-up off at night, I often have to use a cotton bud to clean liner out of my eye. Lead that gets into the eye fluid can travel down the tear duct. It eventually ends up swallowed at the back of the throat. The route of exposure is by ingestion, rather than lead passing through the skin.
In some cultures, children have kohl painted around their eyes. This is a problem if the kohl contains lead. Children will show IQ deficits at blood lead levels of 10 μg/dL. I ran a simple calculation to see how much kohl would be needed to poison a child in this way. The answer is not very much. A small speck of kohl ingested, via the tear ducts, every day for a few months, would be damaging to a child's IQ.
The evidence for lethal lead poisoning from white lead ‘foundation’ is a little more sparse. It seems much more likely that women would die if some form of organic lead crosses the skin. There are a number of articles in 19th century medical journals which do report lead poisoning of young women from oil-based makeup. Investigations found they were using white lead mixed with oil, essentially oil paint (!), on their faces. Some of these women became deathly ill.
The evidence for Lady Coventry being lead poisoned is limited. People in society certainly gossiped about her looks and commented on her make-up. However, I have come across very little writing connecting white lead makeup and her death at the time. Stories written in the 19th century seem to trace back to a comment from Horace Walpole, later Earl of Orford. In a letter to a friend he wrote: ‘That pretty young woman, Lady Fortrose, Lady Harrington's eldest daughter, is at the point of death, killed, like Coventry and others, by white lead, of which nothing could break her...'
We cannot, of course, say whether this report by Horace Walpole is true. Did these young women die from white lead makeup in the 18th century? The whole purpose of this project is to find out if it is possible!
You can read some of the gossip and stories about Lady Coventry’s clothes and makeup on a new page 'Her clothes and makeup' that has been added to the main website. Image is Maria, Countess of Coventry by Benjamin Wilson c. 1750 . Used with permission of the Fitzwilliam Museum.