Nowadays it is fashionable and desirable to have a tan and people go to extreme lengths to acquire one, baking for hours under the sun or even paying interesting sums of money to be "microwaved" in a tanning pod. However, this passion for tanning was not always so. Indeed, up to the first quarter of the 20th century, tanned skin for a woman, was a considered ugly and not "the done thing". The ideal was to have a white complexion and women went to great extremes in order to achieve this look.
From Medieval times until the middle of the 19th century, white lead called ceruse, was used. The best ceruse was imported from Venice (considered best because it produced the whitest effect). It came in paste form and in order to be applied on the face women would mix it with water or egg-white. They would then apply it with the aid of a damp cloth. Of course, mixing it with egg-white produced the very unfortunate effect of the cracking of the makeup when a woman smiled, so we must therefore assume that dedicated wearers were either content to walk about with cracks on their faces or did not smile at all, like Elizabeth I.
Using ceruse though had other undesirable effects too. For one thing, after a few hours the lead would turn a unsightly grey colour. It also had a depilatory effect, therefore inducing the eyebrows to fall off, permanently, which led users to stick on fake ones made of mouse fur.
However, the worst thing about ceruse was that it was deadly. It was absorbed by the skin and over the years led to lead poisoning, a very serious condition, symptoms of which can be found by clicking here http://www.lead.org.au/fs/fst7.html .
For more information on the cosmetic habits of the past, follow the links below.
For more information on where lead can be found today, how we can still get lead poisoning and how to avoid it, click on the following link: http://www.doh.wa.gov/topics/lead.htm