Did white lead make-up enhance beauty at a deadly cost?
Wearing make-up made from a recipe in The Toilette of Health, Beauty and Fashion (1833)
'A Salve which may be used as a Paint'
The author of A Toilette of Health, Beauty and Fashion published in Boston in 1833 has quite a lot to say about lead in cosmetics. He is quite convinced that lead from makeup can be absorbed through the skin. We would love to know his evidence, but alas! He gives no sources.
He writes: 'Mercury and lead manufactured in various forms are, unhappily, ingredients too common in many of our modern cosmetics, whether they consist of lotions, powders, paints, or ointments.
That these deleterious substances can be communicated to the circulating fluids, through the skins as well as the stomach, requires, we should suppose, no further proof, after the doctrine of cutaneous absorption is understood, than which nothing is more simple. Lead, ifonce introduced to the system, though in the smallest proportions, cannot be removed by oil, and never fails to produce the mostdeplorable effects – such as palsy, contraction and convulsion of the limbs, total lamesness, weakness and the most excruciating colics...'
Having said all of this, a few pages later, he includes a recipe for a lead containing ointment which women can use as makeup!
A Salve which may be used as a Paint
'Take four ounces of very white wax, five ounces of oil of bitter almonds, one ounce of very pure spermaceti, one ounce and a half of white lead washed in rose water, and half an ounce of camphor.
Mix up the whole into a salve, which may be preferred to all other whites.'
The expression very white wax means high quality beeswax. There are two kinds of almonds, sweet and bitter. Both provide oil. However, care needs to be taken with Bitter Almond Oil, because if not processed properly, it can contain cyanide. Spermaceti is a waxy substance obtained from the head of sperm whales. Camphor is a waxy substance with a strong distinctive smell, that is used today in cold or sports injury rubs.
Our modern recipe included:
Olive oil - we didn't feel like risking oil that might contain cyanide!
Emulsifying wax which contains cetyl palmitate, the main ingredient in spermaceti.
We used a low temperature wax melter to liquify the beeswax, emulsifying wax and camphor. We stirred in the olive oil. At the end, we thoroughly mixed in the titanium dioxide and left the mixture to cool.
You can watch a video of the makeup being made at the bottom of this page.
Applying the Cream
How easy was it to apply?
Fiona's comments on applying the cream
This makeup is quite waxy and solid. We stored it in our pink fridge overnight. It took a bit of softening between my fingers to get it to melt so I could smooth it on. It was a little difficult to move around on my face. It felt quite dry and my fingers dragged on my skin. Hard as it was to get right, I did like the look of it when I was finished!
Taren and Shaelyn's comments on how it looked to the eye
As with other makeups, this was a more subtle look than might be expected. To the eye, it did not look as white as to the camera. We thought a wax-oil makeup would look more shiny, but it actually looked a little powdery. One problem we noticed with this makeup is that it started to separate as it cooled. The titanium settled to the bottom. Makeup from the bottom of the container might look more white than makeup from the top.
Fiona's face with and without the Boston 1833 make-up under different coloured lights
Bare Face White Light
This is a photograph of my bare washed face with no foundation. It was taken on the same day as the makeup photos shown on this page. This photograph was taken with a Neewer Ring Light with a white diffusing filter using a Canon G7X Mark III camera in portrait mode.
Boston 1833 Make-up White Light
This is a photo with the Boston 1833 make-up applied to my face only. It was not applied to my neck. It was taken with the same camera and white diffusing filter ring light as the bare face photograph. The camera position and settings were not changed from the bare face photograph.
Bare Face Peachy Light
This is a photograph of my bare skin taken with the same camera using the Neweer ring light using an orange diffusing filter. The camera position and settings were the same as for the white light photographs.
Boston 1833 Make-up Peachy Light
This is a photograph where the Boston 1833 make-up is applied to my face only. It was taken using the same camera with the orange diffusing filter ring light. The camera position and settings were again unchanged.
Our Final Thoughts
This makeup contained 3% camphor by weight. This is the maximum level permitted in Canadian makeup. It was quite astringent. It tingled a little on the skin.
Despite the wax and oil, the makeup was very drying on 55 year old skin. Fiona had to layer on moisturizer and face oil after she wore it. She would not be keen to wear it again because it made her skin so dry. However, it would probably be a good non-greasy makeup for younger, more oily skin and might help acne prone skin.
It was very difficult to remove. The wax in the makeup created a layer that soap and water couldn't penetrate. Water pooled in drops on the skin - the makeup was so waterproof! It took a lot (and we mean a lot) of scrubbing to remove. However, it would make a great long wear make-up that could be worn fearlessly in bad weather!
Shaelyn, Taren & Fiona