Most lily-white of hue...


Makeup box from the 5th century, containing white lead tablets.  Image credit: Bibi Saint-Pol


Standards of beauty may have changed over the centuries, but one thing has stayed the same: women - and men - have cared about how they look since they first discovered reflective surfaces!  In our weekly Beauty: then and now feature, we look at some of the ways people have tried to look, feel and smell good over the course of history, and suggest some modern ways to achieve the same effect!

Beauty and wealth have gone hand-in-hand for centuries, and in both Ancient Egypt and Medieval Europe, a porcelain complexion was considered the ultimate in opulent beauty.  Manual labourers and lower-class workers had to spend time in the sun and ended up with tanned faces and arms; lily-white skin became the ultimate sign that you had risen above the daily grind and enjoyed wealth and privilege.  Just like any status symbol, the quest for fair skin became highly competitive, and rich Elizabethan women took to caking their skin with a product called ceruse, which was a combination of vinegar and white lead.  The ceruse effectively bleached their skin, giving ladies of high society faces that were so white they almost glowed!  Queen Elizabeth I was famous for her pale face and love of ceruse, but lead-based cosmetics continued to be the standard until the end of the 19th century.

Did it work?

The Darnley Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, showing her fashionable fair skin. 

It did and it didn’t.  One the one hand, it worked perfectly: lead absolutely lightened the skin, and led to a fair, even, porcelain-doll complexion.  On the other hand, there’s really no long-term benefit to putting lead directly on your skin, since lead poisoning leads to hair loss, tooth decay, digestive disorders, insanity, and a very unpleasant death.  Queen Elizabeth I may have had the fairest skin in all the land, but few people knew that her signature fiery red hair was actually a wig she wore to hide the bald patches caused by her real hair falling out in clumps!  The lead also ate into her skin, causing decay and lesions that she then had to cover with more ceruse - and the only thing worse than putting lead directly onto your skin is putting it over an open wound!  So lead-based makeup may have done what it set out to in terms of lightening the complexion, but the long list of embarrassing, painful, and downright fatal side effects meant that it most definitely was not worth it.

BellaPelle recommends…

Healthy and active has been edging out pale and waifish as the new sexy for a few years, so if you just want an all-over glow then a sunless tan or bronzing moisturiser is the way to go (though be careful out in the sun: always use protection!).  But if you want to even out your complexion, you want to give your naturally fair skin an extra boost or you just love that porcelain glow, look for a product that contains tyrosinase inhibitors, like BellaPelle’s own Super Bright Complex.  Tyrosinase is the enzyme that controls the production of melanin, which is the colour you see when you tan.  Tyrosinase inhibitors stop the skin from producing melanin, keeping the complexion fair and even.  But be warned!  Melanin protects the skin from sun damage, so if you do use a melanin-blocker you have to be extra-careful in the sun: if you aren’t diligent with your SPF you will burn much more easily and increase your risk of skin cancer.  A gentler alternative is to use plant-based skin brighteners such as kojic acid (derived from fungus), that don’t block melanin production as aggressively as tyrosinase inhibitors.  A daily cleanser that combines plant-based brighteners with cleansing agents, such as the Brighten Up Bar, will help maintain that fair, even skin tone without damaging the skin.