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Elizabethan Makeup: Death by Cosmetics

History's great. Eugene Francois Vidocq was the first ever private detective. He was also a criminal who was jailed repeatedly,

A typical Elizabethan wealthy woman's appearance.

A typical Elizabethan wealthy woman's appearance.

Makeup Ingredients to Die For

Cosmetics is an area that has seen a great deal of development since its first known uses in 4000B.C. Our Elizabethan ancestors utilised ingredients that would make 21st-century consumers shudder, including tin ash, cochineal or dead beetles, belladonna, mercury, vinegar and white lead.

During the Elizabethan era of 1558-1603, under Elizabeth I, the flame-haired daughter of Henry VIII, these components were cosmetics essentials for genteel women and men.

Queen Elizabeth I’s liberal applications to her skin of a white lead and vinegar mixture called Spirits of Saturn, also known as Venetian Ceruse, helped to define her era. This trend wasn’t her invention; pale skin was seen as a sign of wealth, nobility and good health in the 16th century. The ideal was already formed and, as ever, fuelled by an unrealistic vision that made for lucrative business.

What was “beautiful” during Elizabeth I’s reign?

1. Alabaster skin, as white as possible on the face, neck, arms, hands and a woman’s décolletage.

2. Wide eyes with dilated pupils.

3. Rosy cheeks.

4. Red lips.

5. High arching eyebrows.

6. Golden hair.

Society Follows the Queen of Cosmetics

Elizabeth’s courtiers and imitators keenly copied the look. Creating an unnatural whiteness to the skin was not only a female device because fashionable males were just as happy to daub lead and vinegar over their skin. Tin ash and sulphur also provided the desired results.

The poor were spared from the side effects of Elizabethan beauty practices; they were too expensive for all but the high-born. The lead and vinegar-free skin of paupers was tanned from working outdoors, but at least it wasn’t being poisoned.

“The Virgin Queen” earned this moniker because of the white skin she exhibited. The red shades of the accompanying rouge and lip paints were unsubtle, gaudy and just as thickly applied as the Spirits of Saturn.

Elizabeth I had another motive for using make-up. Her smallpox scars and any wrinkles that formed as the mighty Gloriana grew older were flaws she had no wish to advertise.

Lead poisoning's side effects. It can be fatal.

Lead poisoning's side effects. It can be fatal.

Spirits of Saturn or Venetian Ceruse’s Dangers

You don’t need to be a world-class scientist to realise that lead and the skin shouldn’t mix. The elite Elizabethans and the acting fraternity that used the mixture didn’t realise they were slowly killing themselves. Most wearers of Spirits of Saturn or Venetian Ceruse believed that their skin was softer, and the association with side effects was not made.

If anyone did suspect a link, they did not speak out; instead, they overlooked the resulting pockmarks and discolouration caused by a lack of oxygen to the skin. Lead poisoning was widespread. If you were lucky, you only suffered from pocks, greying skin and permanent hair loss, but the unluckiest advocates died. Lead poisoning eventually earned an additional name: saturnism.

Cerussite is the active ingredient in Spirits of Saturn and Venetian Ceruse.

Cerussite is the active ingredient in Spirits of Saturn and Venetian Ceruse.

The Elizabethan Face: Poisons and Drastic Measures

  • Belladonna means “beautiful woman”, and it is also known as Deadly Nightshade, a poisonous plant. It was used in eye drops to dilate the pupils and give an allegedly seductive look.
  • A common way to achieve a dark frame around the Elizabethan eyes was to apply antimony, a grey metalloid often found as stibnite, a mineral. The Arabic word for this was kohl; one of the make-up staples that have survived the centuries.
  • Animal and plant-based dyes offered the wearer a rosy glow and red lips. The 16th-century woman accepted the regular use of crushed beetles in the lip paint and rouge. Alternatives were the pigment vermillion and madder, a reddish-brown powder often mixed with egg whites. The reds were not subtle but set against the stark white face; they were highly desirable.
  • The perfect hair colour was golden to golden-red. Of course, that natural gift was a lottery of genes, but it could be achieved with saffron, celandine and oil solutions rubbed into the hair. The low-maintenance alternative was to wear wigs. For this practice, it was not uncommon for a person, male or female, to shave the head because it helped the wig to sit perfectly.
  • Eyebrows were not bushy. They were heavily plucked in high arcs that made the forehead appear broader. The greater the arc, the higher the position in society seems to have been a driving force in this trend.
  • Mens’ beards were starched, and their hair, if long, was made curly and waxed.
Vermilion pigment was used for rouge and lip paint in Elizabethan times. It contrasted with the white lead.

Vermilion pigment was used for rouge and lip paint in Elizabethan times. It contrasted with the white lead.

Tablets of white lead for cosmetics.

Tablets of white lead for cosmetics.

Makeup Removal: Elizabeth I Style

Today, we are accustomed to removing cosmetics by the end of the day, and we see a slew of advertising that states that products last for 24, 48 or more hours, but we don’t necessarily test the claims. Elizabethans would have found daily makeup removal preposterous.

It took several hours to produce and apply the cosmetics. Hence, they kept them on for at least a week before washing with lemon juice, rosewater or a solution of egg shells, mercury, honey and a mix of potassium and aluminium called alum.

Mercury could have blinded, incapacitated or killed them if the lead application hadn’t already achieved the fatal result. Alum may have resulted in hair loss, just as the lead could have.

Queen Elizabeth I epitomised the 16th century ideal of beauty: healthily pale, noble and wealthy.

Queen Elizabeth I epitomised the 16th century ideal of beauty: healthily pale, noble and wealthy.

Poisoning for Cosmetic Effect

When Elizabeth died in 1603, the Elizabethan ideal was forsaken with a haste that the late queen would not have appreciated. A new reign brought with it fresh ideas. The Stuart era favoured the heavy jowled and more naturally coloured visage.

Of course, today, we wouldn't think of using a possible poison for beauty purposes. We wouldn't be that naive. On second thought, welcome to the world of botox. Read more about that here:

Will our descendants be appalled by our beauty practices and ingredients?


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle