Throughout many periods of European and East Asian History a pale powdered face, of varying degrees, has been considered the height of beauty.
Sixteenth-century fashion icon, Catherine de’ Medici, was a regular user of skin-brightening concoctions, including the popular ingredients of lead, mercury, and arsenic.
Before tanning became fashionable, skin that showed no effects of sun exposure was directly tied to status.
However, she was wholly against women ingesting ingredients such as chalk, slate, and tea grounds, describing these methods as destructive to the health. Montez was just one of many women (and men) in the early Victorian era who crusaded for the moderate use of makeup and the end to artifice in beauty. But it didn’t last. Even before Queen Victoria’s death, the use of skin whiteners and other cosmetics such as rouge was becoming popular among women of all classes. On the positive side, less harmful products for achieving fair skin were discovered and the rise of women’s journals meant that women shared their findings and became more savvy about potentially harmful whiteners like arsenic and lead. French chalk and powder of magnesia achieved a more natural finish, and were unlikely to poison the wearer. By the end of the century, cosmetic manufacturing was beginning to be a big business and attitudes were changing quickly.
Well into the 1900s, white lead-based powders were sold all over the Western world and the United States. Though today the FDA monitors products available to consumers for safety, it has not yet set limits on the amount of lead allowed in cosmetics, unlike in the EU, where it is illegal to sell cosmetics with any lead. It would be fair to presume that we modern women have come a long way from swallowing arsenic in order to alter our complexions. But when it comes to our skin, are we taking steps backwards? It’s disturbing to learn that history is repeating itself, with toxic skin whitening a growing trend once again. It’s not just the chemicals used that are damaging. Some companies sell products which are actually safe to use, however, their advertising propogates a message about lighter skin being superior that is far more destructive than the products themselves. And with regulations and their enforcement varying from country to country, millions of women (and some men) throughout Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia are once again using damaging chemicals to lighten the color of their skin, encouraging cosmetic skin lightening to reach its ancient status once again a sobering thought.