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  • Fiona McNeill

Why do this research?

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

The Toxic Allure Team launched this website one week ago and I've been delighted by the number of visitors we've had! I'm happy so many people are interested in our work.


A number of people have asked 'How did you come up with this project?'


I feel like this project found me! I was poking around on-line one evening and was struck by the story of Lady Coventry dying because of her make-up.


I thought 'Wait.What?'

The Lady Coventry story didn't make scientific sense to me. I knew that only certain forms of lead can be absorbed through the skin.


Lead was added to gasoline for decades in the form tetraethyl lead, which can be readily absorbed into the body through the skin. In the 1920s, workers at tetraethyl lead plants died and hundreds became psychotic. Working conditions were so awful that one factory was called 'The House of Butterflies' . Workers hallucinated insects crawling up their arms.


Skin absorption of some forms of lead can have terrible health effects. However, other forms of lead cannot cross through the skin so readily. I had always understood that basic lead carbonate (commonly called white lead or ceruse) could not poison someone through skin contact. So I asked myself, if it cannot poison someone this way, how could it kill Lady Coventry? She would have had to eat the make-up, possibly lots of it, to die, and that doesn't make sense. I wear make-up every day and I don't eat it.


I did a brief search of the scientific literature and found very little about absorption of lead through the skin. In May, I asked Shaelyn to try to find all of the scientific evidence regarding lead and skin. She was so frustrated. It is painful to search for something that doesn't exist! She turned over every stone and confirmed that science doesn't know very much about lead passing through skin. There are government safety documents available from all around the world, but it turns out they are based on very little actual experimental data.


So, scientists currently have no real idea of how toxic 18th century make-up might have been. I decided to start this project to try and answer the question. It is going to be challenging research, but it is absolutely fascinating, and I love every minute I spend on it.


You can read more about 'Lead on women's health' on the main website. You can also read how we are testing toxicity of lead based makeup in the section 'Absorbing lead through skin'.

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