Makeup and lead poisoning in the 18th century

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Emma Chambers
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Museums and Collections

There was a high incidence of lead-poisoning in the 18th century because of the fashion for red and white lead makeup and powder see -

The 18th Century

Hair and Cosmetics in the eighteenth century

As transport became more organised, local shops could keep supplies of foreign goods, cosmetics and wigs included; and out-of-town people could paint themselves as easily as courtiers; the growth of cities at this time signalled the arrival of a new moneyed class. The new people were not aristocracy, they were primarily town dwellers and their aim was sophistication. (Angeloglou: p70)

Although this era was known as the Age of Enlightenment, most fashionable men and women poisoned themselves with red and white lead make-up and powder. (Swinfield: p97) The make-up they used caused the eyes to swell and become inflamed, attacked the enamel on the teeth and changed the texture of the skin causing it to blacken, it was also not uncommon to suffer baldness, and for a time it became fashionable to shave the front hairline. It was known that heavy use of lead could cause death. (Baker: p210)

Throughout this Century men and women continued to whiten their faces and applied bright pink rouge, from Spanish wool. (An impregnated pad of hair – like a ‘brillo’ pad) This was applied heavily in a round or triangular shape to the cheeks. The lips were small and rose-bud shaped and also painted with Spanish wool or Ceruse, giving a ‘bee-sting’ effect. Hair was powdered and some women also powdered their shoulders and breasts while accentuating the veins on the bosom in blue. (Delamar: p68) The breast was the vogue of the eighteenth century, but the skin of the most fashionable bosom was ‘scabrous with inflammation’. (Angeloglou: p79)

Women’s eyebrows were plucked thin, pencilled high and curved, or shaved and replaced, the eyebrow could be of any colour and it could be placed anywhere, false eyebrows were used and made from mouse skin. The real eyebrow having been removed was covered over with pink paste; Swift mentions:

“Her eyebrows from a mouse’s hide
Stuck on with art on either side” (Angeloglou: p76)

Patches in the shape of stars, hearts, half moons, round, even birds were worn on the face and cut out of black taffeta, Spanish leather or gummed paper, these were useful in covering up scars or skin afflictions such as small pox, while the fan also helped to hide the face.

The patches were seen as a symbol of political allegiance – depending on which side of the face a patch was worn, Whigs on the right and Tories on the left. At the court of Louis XV, a patch worn at the corner of the eye indicated passion, the centre of the cheek was gay, the nose was saucy, a patch on the upper lip suggested kisses and the forehead was majestic. A patch worn on a dimple was playful – and a murderess wore her patches on her breast! Often people wore up to fifteen or sixteen patches at once. (Angeloglou: p73)

The face mask was worn outdoors, made from black silk or velvet, stiffened with fine leather or buckram. The more common type was the half-face shape which circled the eyes and tied behind with ribbons, there was even a full face mask which was used on the continent, but not popular in England. The attraction of the mask may explain the relative unimportance of eye make-up. (Angeloglou: p74)

The first school of hairdressing and wig-making opened in Paris in The Académie de Coffure, 1768 and hairdressing and wig-making reached massive proportions, where hair gradually became higher and higher, until the middle of the Century when the hair was the most excessive it would ever be. (Baker: p211)

These extreme styles were achieved with the addition of horse hair pads, false and crepe hair which was dressed over wooden and iron frames. Curling tongs were introduced at this time and hair was curled into long ringlets and rows of curls. Switches, hair pieces and pin curls were also added.

Feathers, ribbons, jewels, even vegetables and other decorative ornaments also appeared at this point in time, mounted on top of the head. All hairstyles were powdered for formal occasions, usually with white lead or flour but sometimes grey, blue or lilac colours would be used while some were known to use gold dust. (Baker: p211)

Hats were also popular and very large, made from felt or straw, covered in other fabrics and trimmed with lace. The elderly women still wore mob caps.

Dressing the hair was time consuming and expensive and had to last as long as possible, combing and brushing the hair was impossible once finished, as a result hair styles were kept in for several weeks or months, which made sleeping difficult, sometimes sleeping with the head on a curved wooden block to protect the style. (Swinfield: p97)

Long scratching sticks were used as some heads were infested with lice. Many men and women shaved their heads for ease and comfort and resorted to wearing wigs.
(Swinfield: p97)

Most 18th Century men wore wigs, regardless of income and every village had its own wig-maker. There were a wide variety of styles to choose from, one of the most important at this time was the Campaign Wig, worn by military men. Some of the older men still wore the full bottomed wigs. (Baker: p100)

This was replaced by the simple Tie Wig where the hair was drawn back from the face and tied at the back of the head with a black ribbon. The tied hair was called a ‘queue’, meaning tail. The queue was sometimes encased in a bag – known as a Bag Wig. There was also the short Bob Wig. Men did not have facial hair, beards and moustaches were unpopular, except with the military. (Swinfield: p100 and Baker: p211)

Highly fashionable fops, known as The Macaronis chose elaborate high wigs, sometimes worn up to 18 inches high, they carried men’s fashions and men’s cosmetics to a new extreme. (Swinfield: p100). Town and Country Magazine 1764 described them:

“They make a most ridiculous figure… it is a puzzle to determine the thing’s sex” (Angeloglou: p83)

By 1768 men’s eyebrows had changed to black eyebrows and darkened them with lead, or continued to shave off their own and repaint them in. Cheeks were heavily rouged by the men who also reddened their lips. (Delamar: p 68)

One of the new modes was false teeth and experiments were made to replace lost teeth with false ones. There had been previous attempts to thread wood or bone onto wire and insert them into the mouth but they were considered clumsy and painful. Most people accepted their black stumps and dentists were still the barber chirurgeon’s (Angeloglou: p71), with very low status attached to them. Breath sweeteners are described, such as cloves, cinnamon, bramble leaves honey mixed with burnt ashes – which ultimately rotted the teeth but temporarily gave sweet breath.

There were many beauty treatments around at the time and adverts included a ‘Chemical Wash’ to improve the skin:

“by taking off all deformities…as Ringworms, Morphew, Sunburn, Scurf, Pimples, Pits or Redness of the Smallpox, keeping it of lasting and extreme Whiteness…” (Angeloglou: p73)

A tax on hair powdering and wigs (Delamar: p68) was introduced in 1795 but the extreme hair and make-up styles ended in the 1780’s with the French revolution, after which make-up and hair became more natural. (Baker: p211)


• Maggie Angeloglou, ‘A History of Make-Up’, Studio Vista, 1970

• Patsy Baker, ‘Wigs and Make-up for Theatre, Television and Film’, Focal Press, 1993

• Richard Corson, ‘Fashions in Make-up from Ancient to Modern Time’s’. Peter Owen Ltd, 1972

• Richard Corson, ‘Fashions in Hair – The First 5000 years’, St Edmundsbury Press, 1980

• Penny Delamar, ‘The Complete Make-up Artist, Working in Film, Television and Theatre’, Macmillan Press Ltd, 1995

• Rosemary Swinfield, ‘Hair and Wigs for the Stage’, A and C Black Ltd, 1999

• Mary Trasco, ‘A History of Extraordinary Hair’. Flamm Press, 1994

How to achieve the look

Eighteenth Century Make-up



• These can be brought from fancy dress shops, make-up suppliers, art suppliers or chemists.
• After use, wash the sponges and brushes in warm, soapy water, rinse well and allow to dry.
• A variety of different sized brushes are useful for detailed work.

Other Equipment

• Tissues –To mop up spillages or mistakes
• Baby wipes – useful for cleaning brushes and correcting mistakes
• Towel/gown – To protect clothing
• Hair Clips – To keep hair off the face while applying make-up


• It is important that you check that your model has no skin allergies or infections.
• Make-up is non-toxic and highly tested but should not be applied to broken skin or over rashes. If in doubt, apply a little make-up on the inside of model’s wrist and leave for a few hours to see is an allergy occurs.
• Cleanse, tone and moisturize the skin before hand to ensure removal of any other make-up and to make application of foundation easier
• Cover the model with a gown or towel to protect clothing.
• Clip hair away from the face


• Always keep your materials, including pots, brushes and towels scrupulously clean to prevent cross infection.
• Brushes should be cleaned regularly.
• Lay clean items out on a clean surface before you begin.


General Tips

• Take care when making-up around the eyes. When applying make-up to the top eyelids ask your model to keep their eyes closed until the area is dry to prevent smudging.
• When applying make-up under the eye ask your model to look up and away from the brush.
• Do not apply too close to the eye itself.
• Be extra careful when using a brush around a person’s eyes.
• Apply the base colour first with a sponge that is barely dry. This is done by dipping the sponge in water and squeezing out the excess.
• Wipe sponge around pot of make-up.
• Apply round the outside of the face first and then fill in the rest. If the sponge is too wet the make-up will be streaky, if it is too dry it will be difficult to apply. Some colours make better bases than others, so experiment first.
• For a deeper colour, allow the first coat to dry and then apply a second coat.
• Colours can be blended for a softer effect. First apply the base colour and allow to dry.
• If there are any harsh edges, you can fade them away using a dry sponge with no make-up on it.

Application of Make-up

• Eliminate the eyebrows with wax or soap
• Apply white foundation all over the face, not forgetting the ears and the back of the neck and the breasts.

• Set with white powder
• Re-apply eyebrows in a high arch above the line of original brows with either a pencil or a brush..
• Apply red blusher to the cheeks, in the middle of the face.
• Apply red lipstick in a cupid’s bow to the lips
• Paint in veins on the breasts if required.
• Style the hair

Eighteenth Century Hairstyling

Most styles from this era need extra height and volume and backcombing can be very useful.

You will need:

1. A pintail comb
2. A Brush
3. Clips


• You do not want hair too fresh and soft.
• To achieve good results you need to work in sections starting from the front of your hair.
• Take the front section, comb it up from your head and clasp it tightly between two fingers.
• Comb behind the hair at the roots with the teeth pointing forwards and working upwards towards the ends, comb in little strokes to force some of the hair back down. Hold the ends tightly as you do this.
• The section of the hair should stand up on its own.

• Lift that section forward and take another one behind it and repeat the process.
• Keep going until you have reached the back, then do the sides, starting at the ears.

• Once you have finished backcombing, lightly brush the top hair into the required shape.
• When brushing our, hold the roots flat to your head and start combing from the ends, this prevents damage to the hair.

One easy style for women’s long hair is to backcomb the top hair into a high beehive, curling a small piece of hair in front of each ear and sweeping the length across the back and over one shoulder in soft ringlets. Hide the grips at the back with feathers or ribbons.

Make-up and Wig Suppliers:

Charles Fox (London) 0870 2000 369
Screenface (London) 0207 2218 289
Masquerade (Birmingham) 0121 421 3710

Julia Hyland 2005