But why, it seems reasonable to ask, did the Greeks use lead as their whitener of choice? When researching this period, and the use of lead powder, I was interested to discover that ancient Athens owed much of its great wealth to the Laurion mines. Located close to the city, they produced a vast amount of silver reportedly ten thousand tons in the fifth century BC the discarded by-products of which were mountains of white lead pigment (lead wasn’t specifically mined until much later). It’s my belief that the widespread use of lead as a key ingredient in skin-whitening cosmetics in Athens and the proximity of the silver mines can’t be coincidental.
There were some Grecians who steered clear of makeup altogether: The women of the city-state of Sparta, a military-orientated society that prized strength above everything else, were accorded very different rights from those of other Greek women. Spartan girls were unique in that they were formally educated, and although they were not able to work or earn money, they were allowed to own and inherit land (unlike the majority of Greek women and girls, who had to marry the closest surviving male heir on their paternal side in order to inherit land even if they were already married to someone else). What’s more, physical fitness was considered to be as important for Spartan girls as it was for boys, which meant that they exercised, took part in races, and drove carriages. In short, they spent a lot more time outside than their Athenian counterparts, and their skin would have looked different and been richly tanned because of this. The Greek writer and historian Plutarch wrote that Lycurgus, the lawgiver of Sparta, outlawed the use of makeup in the city, meaning that the Spartan ideal of beauty probably would have been quite different from that upheld by the rest of Greece at the time.2
Lead is placed in an earthen vessel over sharp vinegar and after it has acquired some thickness of a kind of rust, which it commonly does in about ten days, they open the vessels and scrape it off. They then place the lead over the vinegar again, repeating over and over again the same process of scraping it till it is wholly gone. What has been scraped off they then beat to powder and boil (with water) for a long time and what at last settles to the bottom of the vessel is white lead.
This end product is what would have been used as a skin-lightening powder, as proven by the archaeological digs that have uncovered pyxides containing traces of white lead in the graves of wealthy Greek women.
Though it seems to have been acceptable for those who could afford it to even out one’s skin with a layer of white lead, it appears there was a fine line between highlighting a pale complexion and masking one’s appearance like a courtesan, or hetaera. The wife in Xenophon’s Oeconomicus is reproached for wearing makeup that hides her true appearance: Well, one day Socrates, I noticed that her face was made up: she had rubbed in white lead to look even whiter than she is. The ancient Greek poet Eubulus compares less-made-up wives with heavily made-up courtesans in his comic play Stephanopolides (By Zeus, they are not plastered over with white lead . . .) and other references in the literature of the time clearly indicate that when it came to psimuthion, less was more. Though the white powders and pastes used would have acted as a pretty effective sunblock, they also would have been highly toxic, and over time they would have, ironically, made one’s skin look withered and old the opposite of the desired effect.
This Japanese Geisha tutorial photographed by Irving Penn for US Vogue in 1964 demonstrates the growing interest in Asian beauty culture in the latter half of the twentieth century and which continues today. Photographs by Irving Penn, © Conde Nast. Vogue,