Blushes derived from crushed beetle wings, a face-wash comprised of sulphur and alum dissolved in rose water or lead based eyeliner, are just some of the other unusual concoctions featured in the cosmetic and beauty regimes of the women of this era.
Add to that, un-conventional powders that whitened the skin and pastes that darkened the eyelids and lashes, it’s a miracle that any woman walked away from her dressing table alive.
In her book, ‘Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art’, professor Aileen Ribeiro examines the changes and major trends that have shifted beauty for the world while exploring the extent that women went to, to achieve or hold on to youthful looks using cosmetics from the period 1540-1940.
“Some of the recipes in the early modern period did involve cruelly killing pigeons for 'pigeon-water', and some may sound far-fetched, puppy-dog water (urine) was also popular”, the professor told CosmeticDesign-Europe.com
Her account of the names and ingredients used in cosmetics is fascinating if not shocking. “The most 'surprising' (in the sense of horrifying) is, to most people, the use of lead-based products for use on the skin (white foundation and rouge) and around the eyes, even when the dangers were known”, adds Ribeiro.
Lead-based products were so popular because they gave smooth and complete coverage results.
“But of course, in the long run, lead did terrible things as it entered the bloodstream, I wonder if women felt that they would escape the effects of lead, that they were somehow immortal,” contemplates Ribeiro.
Other products of yesteryear were said to have contained high concentrations of arsenic, mercury and lead, yet women continued to use them through vanity, ignorance or indifference.
According to Ribeiro, most women used whatever ingredients were to hand, to attain those desirable youthful looks. “Women were presented with the notion that youth was the Holy Grail of beauty and they should pursue it.”
However, the professor does stress that not all products were hazardous to the health. Onions, white wax, honey, barley water and balsam of Mecca used to treat wrinkles or cucumber seeds and cream for smoother skin, were also part of beauty regimes.
“There are recipes made from flowers, herbs and fruit to clear the skin or almond oil to soften the skin,” she points out.
Evolvement of the Cosmetic Industry
With the advancement of technology and health and safety guidelines, today’s cosmetic products are less likely to kill you at the dressing table.
Dr Christopher Flower, director-general at The Cosmetic Toiletry & Perfumery Association agrees: “I can’t imagine anyone would want to give up today’s products for those of hundreds of years ago.”
“Today’s ingredients would seem very strange to someone from back then in, some of the names of ingredients alone might seem perplexing and very strange.”
“However,” he continued “to us they are the logical choice, whether it’s to stop you from sweating under the armpits or a product that’s smoother and nicer to apply to the skin (boiled pigeons).”
But as we’ve evolved have we managed to keep any of those traditional beauty regimes alive?
Professor Ribeiro says; “I've recently come across face creams made from snail slime, supposed to fight acne and smooth out wrinkles; snails were also utilised in the 16th and 17th centuries.”