Elizabethan Makeup 101

Written by Leanna Serras

The Elizabethan time was an interesting period for cosmetics. Where it was previously considered vulgar to wear makeup, women then started wearing makeup increasingly, and it was even the time that perfume and cologne were hot!

In the Elizabethan period, the pure, perfect woman was expected to have light hair, a pale white complexion with red cheeks and lips. This was because only lower-class women spent a lot of time outside working (and thus ended up getting tan). Noblewomen were expected to be extremely pale to show that they were pampered and did not have to work. Only upper-class women in the Elizabethan area could afford to wear makeup.

In fact, skin care was what most women worried about. Since suntan lotion had not been invented and marks on the face were very common, Elizabethan women came up with many different ways to cover up their imperfections.

Women would paint their faces very white. This makeup was called Venetian ceruse - or sometimes just ceruse. It was a lead-based cosmetic item that also contained hydroxide and carbonate . Whenever a new layer of ceruse was needed, women would paint their faces without removing the first layer. This resulted in layers of makeup being on a woman's face. Unfortunately, the lead did have side-effects - it often turned the woman's skin gray. Doctors at the time urged women to use other makeup that used tin ash or alum. Another common base for makeup at the time was talc, boiled white egg or other white products. They also used uncooked egg whites as a "glaze" for their skin that helped hide wrinkles!

Mercury was also a common ingredient in makeup. At that time, it was used to clear the skin of spots and wrinkles, much like today's acne treatment is designed to do. However, the mercury was not treating acne; it was in fact removing the skin and corroding the flesh! If someone found that method didn't work, they might have mixed birch sap, elder leaves, and sulfur, applied it to their skin at night and removed it in the morning. Other forms of skin cleansers were made from urine, rain water, donkey's milk or red wine instead of soap-like ingredients we now use.

Eye shadow was made from ground mother of pearl. Makeup pencils were made by mixing plant pigments with something called plaster of Paris; the two were mixed together, then molded into shape and left to dry in the sun. These pencils were used to outline fake eyelashes made of mouse fur.

Our makeup today is quite different. We use makeup to cover up our imperfections as well, but ours is safe to use and does not cause the terrible side-effects Elizabethan makeup did!