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“Cosmetic Chemistry: A Brief Historical Survey”

BLOGGER’S NOTE It’s finals week at CMU, and I am busy studying for exams and working on my James Joyce term paper. While I am thus occupied, I leave you with excerpts from my education. Today’s offering is a passage from my Chem 101 project.

Elizabethan England

Elizabeth REgyptians were not unique in using lead as a cosmetic ingredient. Ancient Greek women used lead-based face paints, and similar products were used to create the lustrous white complexion seen in portraits from 16th-century England. It’s not altogether clear what the chemical compositions of these cosmetics were, but powdered cerussite (lead carbonate, PbCO3) is one suggestion—certainly there was a product called "ceruse" in use at this time—while a cream created when lead is reacted with vinegar (impure dilute acetic acid, C2H4O2) has also been proposed. Many Elizabethan pictures also show hair-loss characteristic of lead poisoning. In fact, court ladies were forced to shave their own foreheads to match the queen’s receding hairline, since the monarch set the fashion. This toxic compound also took a toll on the very face it was meant to beautify: ceruse ate pits into the queen’s complexion, and these blemishes inspired her to slather the mixture on even more thickly—which, of course, only made matters worse. The effects of lead poisoning continued to erode the queen’s beauty to the point that stylish ladies had to blacken their teeth as well as shave their foreheads. Ultimately, Elizabeth banned all mirrors from her palaces.

May 3, 2005 | Permalink


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