Dying to Be Beautiful: Poisonous Cosmetics in Medieval Times

Just how dangerous were the cosmetic habits of medieval women? Let's just say you won't find mercury foundation or potions of liquid gold at your nearest Macy's. Welcome to part 4 of Eleanor Herman's Poison Chronicles, inspired by her book The Royal Art of Poison.

Eleanor Herman
6-minute read
Episode #53

Centuries ago, upper crust women were as devoted to their beauty treatments as women are today. The ingredients have changed, however. For flawless-looking skin, Renaissance noblewomen wore makeup containing white lead ore, vinegar, arsenic, hydroxide, and carbonate, applied to the face over egg whites. It gave them a silvery gleaming complexion, along with paralysis, madness, and death. They also used mercury foundation, topped off with a liberal dusting of arsenic face powder.

It’s possible that Queen Elizabeth I, who used cosmetics containing arsenic, mercury, and lead for over 40 years, suffered from heavy metal poisoning. During the last years of her life, the queen lost her appetite and deteriorated mentally and physically. She routinely erupted into temper tantrums with her ladies-in-waiting and sometimes threw cosmetics and brushes at them. The queen’s godson, Sir John Harington, noticed that she “doth not now bear with such composed spirit as she was wont; but…seemeth more forward than commonly she used to bear herself towards her women.”

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While she had always taken sensible measures to ensure her personal safety—as all monarchs did—by the 1590s she developed a strong streak of paranoia. The Jesuits, she said, were trying to assassinate her. Sir John Harington noted, “She walks much in her privy chamber, and stamps with her feet at ill news, and thrusts her rusty sword at times into the arras [tapestry] in great rage.”

Perhaps her deadly cosmetics hastened her death.

She became increasingly lonely and depressed as her old friends passed away. The heaviest blow came in 1601 when her young admirer, Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, was executed for treason. Giovanni Scaramelli, the Venetian ambassador, reported, “She has so suddenly withdrawn into herself, she who was wont to live so gaily, especially in these last years of her life. Her days seemed numerous indeed but not now she allows grief to overcome her strength.” In her remaining two years, the queen often sat in the dark, weeping. Elizabeth Tudor, the cunning, energetic politician, had become indecisive and querulous, and seemed to be losing her grip on power.

The people around her thought she was just getting old. And though she died at 69—considered quite old at the time—perhaps her deadly cosmetics hastened her death.