Arts Entertainments

History of Skin Care, Part 13: The Elizabethan Era, 1500-1599

A rebirth of the north

The Italian Renaissance took almost a hundred years to catch up with the British Isles, but when it did, the results were spectacular. Under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, England began a quest for expansion that saw the creation of new colonies around the world. Large portions of India, Africa, and North America were built under British rule. While the merits of British colonialism may be debatable, however, there is no doubt that the Elizabethan era represented an expansion of thought as well as an expansion of political power. Legendary playwrights and poets such as Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare based their plays on the same classical material that had inspired Italians a century earlier. Clothes became more and more elaborate and makeup quickly followed suit. However, in an age when much more emphasis was placed on appearance than health, hygiene and skin care were often forgotten.

The Elizabethan look

During this time, Queen Elizabeth’s gaze ruled the hearts and minds of British women. While clothing had become more and more structured throughout the latter part of the Middle Ages, Elizabeth took this sense of structure to new heights. Tight corsets were used to give the body a smooth and shaped appearance. While the proper hoop skirts had not yet been invented, women tied large padding pieces around their hips to extend their skirts into wide, elongated hoops. Starched ruffles were worn around the neck and hair was often gathered in elaborate updos. However, despite the extreme ornamentation of her clothing, the face remained the focal point of the look and cosmetics took on much greater importance than in medieval England.

Queen Elizabeth is often credited with being the first of her time to adopt a fully made-up appearance. However, although it may have been the first, the noble women of Great Britain quickly followed suit. Women would paint their faces with a white powder known as Venetian ceruse. The best lead was made of lead, carbonate, and hydroxide. Less expensive alternatives were made from talc or boiled egg, although they were considered to be less effective. Once the heavy powder was applied to their faces, the women painted their cheeks with a red paint called fucus and painted their lips with vermilion. The first lipsticks were made during this time by putting sun-dried vermilion and ground plaster into a pen-like device. (Go here to learn more about the Elizabethan lipstick making process: To add a glazed look to your look, women they would cover their faces, makeup and everything, in a layer of egg white.

The great cover-up

During the Elizabethan era, elaborate makeup was considered a sign of nobility, because few ordinary people could afford the lead powders and dried vermilion that were used to create the popular look. However, as the century progressed, cosmetics also began to be associated with disease. Poor hygiene had led to several serious outbreaks of plague and smallpox, and many survivors still had horrible scars and pox marks on their faces. While disease was rampant among rich and poor alike, only the rich had access to the expensive cosmetics that would cover their scars. Strengthening the connection between makeup and poor health, doctors at the time began to discover that lead dust was not as safe as previously thought. Women rarely washed their faces and opted to apply new powders over old ones, and years of this treatment were found to turn skin a dull gray hue. While many doctors recommended switching to an alum or tin ash-based powder, lead prevailed in popularity.

Many women went a long time without cleaning the dust from their faces. However, when they wanted to remove their makeup, they found that thick, caked lead was not easily removed with just water. To peel off the cosmetic layers, they resorted to a combination of skincare science and superstition, washing their faces with everything from mild rainwater or donkey’s milk to red wine or more astringent urine. Mercury was also among the most common skin care products used to treat acne, wrinkles, scars, and discoloration. While it effectively removed these blemishes, it did so by corroding the surface of the skin and often caused much worse scars than the ones it removed. (Go here for more information on Elizabethan cosmetics and hygiene:

Despite the health concerns of the time, Elizabethan women were known for their excessive beauty and cosmetic practices. However, it was these excesses, among others, that would spark a Puritan revolt in the next century and see Oliver Cromwell take control of the British throne.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *