The Science

Studies of 18th century make-up recipes

Light Reflection

One of the ways that make-up enhances beauty is by changing the way light is reflected from skin. This is why words like radiant, glow, and luminous appear on many products at the beauty counter.

Products aimed at young women are formulated to scatter light to hide blemishes or reduce shine.

Make-up targeted for older women changes the way light is reflected to make skin look younger and blur wrinkles.

We are measuring the way 18th century white lead make-up recipes change the  way light is reflected from pigskin by using a device that measures the whole visible spectrum from blue to red.

We want to answer the question 'What did white lead make-up really look like?'

pigskin spectroscopy 90 degree light on.

Skin Absorption

For lead to be toxic, it has to enter the bloodstream, where it can be carried to the brain, nerves and kidneys, causing damage. But how does lead from make-up get into the body?

Poor hand hygiene perhaps could mean a woman could transfer lead to her mouth but it seems unlikely that a woman wearing beautiful clothes wouldn't wash white powder or white cream off her hands.

Using specialized glass chambers called Franz cells, we are testing whether lead from white lead make-up recipes can be absorbed through pigskin. We hope to answer the question 'Could lead from 18th century make-up have entered the body through the skin?'

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Retention in the Body

Once lead enters the body, it is stored in bone for years or decades. At McMaster University, we can measure lead levels in bone painlessly in living people using a specialized x-ray device.

We have measured the bone and blood lead levels of hundreds of modern women, and have used the information to create models for how lead is taken up, stored and excreted from women's bodies.

We plan to use these models to calculate the lead exposure of women wearing white lead make-up. This may may answer the question: 'Could 18th century women die from their make-up?'

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