02 November, 2012

Red cheeks or rosacea in beauty throughout time, in art and in fashion

They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and art will show you this in the most direct and clear manner. We might all know how in the 17th and early 18th century Rubenesque women were popular, with voluptuous bodies, while a slim figure was desired again in the 19th century (although a slim waistline has always been preferred). The same change in beauty perception can be seen in ideas about cosmetics and skin over time.

Apart from the pain and burning that rosacea can give, I am also affected in a way by my own perception of beauty. And a red face is not marked on my short list. I was a little bit surprised by the amount of red cheeked women I found portrayed however, when I did a search today. Of course, some have it only 'fashionably' on the upper cheeks, and a lot of the rococo period ladies had their faces whitened first with lead and chalk and then applied artificial rouge to portray youth and health and freshness. But as you might see, a lot of women in the portraits -especially those from the Renaissance or the 20th Century when the make-up wasn't as thick- had natural redness in the face, and the amount of portraits I encountered gave me the impression that red cheeks were long considered appealing, both artificial and natural. Unlike today. Even in the 20's, with the Jugendstil (a style that I love), it was very common and women intentionally created it with rouge. Maybe it is only since the introduction of modern make-up and foundation that we try to achieve a flawless, even skin tone?


A golden rule in fashion has long been, that the thing that was most desirable was also the thing that was most difficult to achieve. So in times of famine it was considered beautiful and aristocratic to have round curvy bodies, and in time of abundance we want to be skinny. When food was scarce and limited, a youthful fresh look with red cheeks was highly preferred over grey or dull skin tones, which gave away your poor background. This isn't a golden rule of course, sometimes fashion didn't act so predictable. But maybe in this time of an abundance and increase of skin conditions, like acne, psoriasis, eczema, rosacea and allergies (some increased tenfold the last decades), we all want to look flawless and we detest our red or uneven looking faces and skin.For a long long time however, it was the epitome of beauty to have pale skin with red cheeks. A summary..

How was red skin perceived in the last 2000 years? And to what degree was rouge used for the red cheek affect?

In ancient Greece and Egypt, a more "natural" looking skin was usually preferred, but in the 4th century B.C., Grecian women painted their faces with white lead and they used crushed mulberries for rouge. They liked pronounced eye make-up and used green eye shadow (both male and female) and carbon, black oxide, and other (often toxic) substances for eyelash and brow enhancers. They even applied fake eyebrows, often made of oxen hair. This Dutch girl, "Loepsie", does great youtube tutorials on old style hair and make-up. She focuses mostly on the hair part but also tends to get it right with overall look, so I will add some of her videos too in this post.


In the Roman Empire, women applied pastes of lentils, honey, narcissus, wheat, and eggs to achieve pale complexions. For a more dramatic effect, chalk and white lead were applied to the skin, along with rouge. Roman women would use (expensive) face packs with crocodile dung as the active ingredient for the skin. In the Christian world the heavy use of makeup gradually diminished. During the Middle Ages however, women still considered a pale look fashionable, and they tried to achieve it by staying out of the sun. You had to be rich enough to have servants then of course, so another used method was to paint the face with water–soluble paints and white powder, or to bled oneself on a regular basis. Women would curl their hairs in the Middle Ages with hot tongs and dye it with vegetable dyes. They also used that for reddening their faces and to colour their nails. At that time there were no glass mirrors but women used mirrors made of polished metal.


Fun fact, before lipstick was invented, women used to put cinnamon powder on their lips to achieve a red colour. They were also taught to press their lips together before entering a room to achieve that temporary red colour, and to pinch their cheeks for the same effect (warning; do not do this at home when you have rosacea haha). Arms and hands were considered among the most beautiful parts of a woman's body. They were well pampered with creams and women even used make-up to optically slim their arms and hands. And before mascara became a household product, women would mix petrolium jelly (vaseline) with charcoal, and then apply it to their eye lashes. 

In the 16th century, it had become widespread to care about your appearance. Where it was previously considered vulgar to wear makeup, women now started wearing makeup increasingly, and it was even the time that perfume and cologne were popular. 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. There were mirrors used of glass and steel and people took more baths. White lead became popular again to have a paler complexion. It was a sign of wealth and glamour, as the poor women had to work in the fields often and their suntan would reveal this. Red ochre was used for rouge on the cheeks. Blonde hair became popular and many women started to dye their hair light.


During the 45-year reign of England's Queen Elizabeth I, between 1558 and 1603, the monarch's personal appearance soon set the trend for feminine beauty,  the so called 'Elizabethan style'. Hallmarks were extremely pale skin, contrasted by rosy cheeks and red lips, bright eyes, and hair that was red or blonde. Upper-class women of the 16th-century Elizabethan era achieved this look at a price: Ingredients in the cosmetics they most often used were damaging, and sometimes even fatal. The Elizabethan makeup most often used to create a pale or pure white face, neck and bosom was ceruse, a mixture of white lead and vinegar. It was also called 'Venetian ceruse' which contained lead, hydroxide and carbonate. It was applied in a heavy layer-and it was toxic. Less expensive alternatives were made from talc or boiled egg, although these were considered to be less effective. Color for cheeks and lips came from mercuric sulfide (vermilion) or fucus, a red face paint basically, which could be laid on thickly. Women also used plants (like madder, an Asian plant with red roots), beeswax, cochineal and animal dyes (such as cochineal, a beetle) on the cheeks.  Cheeks were also reddened using a mixture of egg white and ochres.


Mercury, another toxic substance, was also a recommended ingredient in various facial treatments, including a bath to freshen the skin. Preparations suggested to help Elizabethan women achieve the coveted red or golden hair color included dubious or unhealthful ingredients such as urine. It's no wonder many resorted to fashionably tinted wigs instead. Court ladies emulated the sparkling eyes so noticeable in contemporary portraits of Elizabeth I not only by outlining their eyes with black kohl, but by using drops of belladonna (deadly nightshade) to dilate their pupils. 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 the fake eyelashes made out (mouse) fur.

During the Elizabethan Era, elaborate make-up was seen as a sign of nobility, because few common people could afford the lead powders and the dried vermilion that was used to create the popular look. As the century wore on however, cosmetics also began to be associated with disease. Poor hygiene had led to a number of serious plague and smallpox outbreaks and the survivors would carried horrible scars and pock 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 make-up and poor health, doctors at this time began to discover that lead powder was not as safe as had previously been thought. Women rarely washed their faces, choosing instead to layer new powder over the old, and years of this treatment were found to turn the skin underneath a dull shade of gray. Some authors of the time warned against it, describing how it made the skin "grey and shriveled". While many doctors recommended switching to an alum or tin-ash based powder, lead prevailed in popularity. Many women went great lengths of time without cleaning the powder from their faces. When they did want to remove their make-up, however, they found that the thick, caked-on lead was not easily removed with water alone. In order to strip the cosmetic layers, they turned to a combination of skincare science and superstition, washing their faces with everything from gentle rainwater or donkey's milk to more astringent red wine or urine. Mercury was also among the common skin care products used to treat acne, wrinkles, scars and discoloration. However, the mercury was not treating acne; it was in fact removing the skin and corroding the flesh. While it did effectively remove these blemishes, it did so by corroding the surface of the skin and often caused scars that were far worse than those it removed. If someone found that method didn't work, they might have tried a mix of birch sap, elder leaves and sulfur, which was applied to the skin at night and removed 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.

About the health risk of lead; Lead-based cosmetics became very popular in sixteenth-century Europe with the fashion of covering up the face with a sort of white mask that helped hide smallpox scars, boils, freckles and skin imperfections in general. White lead mixed with vinegar was used for this purpose. Lead did not only aggravate these skin conditions, it also caused hair loss. This is why in Elizabethan time the fashion was to shave the hair so as to obtain a very high forehead: not many ladies had any hair left on that part of the head. Recent studies have shown that lead is even absorbed through unbroken skin and that products containing oils and fats, together with the fatty acids already on the skin, can favour this process with harmful consequences for health. People risked much more than skin diseases and grey skin, and many died of lead poisoning.



Francois Boucher, Mme de Pompadour 1750
In the 17th century, men and women started to use make-up to limited degree and the layers of makeup became even more heavy.  First, white paint was applied, then white powder, then a brownish rouge, and deep red lip color to accentuate the whiteness of their powder. The paint on their faces became so white and thick, that it started to resemble plaster. The 17th century facial powder was still made of chalk and the harmful lead, mixed with egg fiber and in such a way it was rendered on skin: the thicker, the better. “Beauty patches”—pieces of velvet or silk cut into the shape of stars, moons, hearts, and similar figures—were frequently applied to the face and body to cover smallpox scars, and similar marks. A “secret language” even developed through their use: A patch near the mouth meant you were flirtatious; one next to the right cheek signaled you were married; one on the left cheek announced you were engaged; one at the corner of the eye meant you were somebody’s mistress.

Fashion in the 17th century. "These women are pictured with some of 
the prominent accessories of the 17th Century. 
These include folding fans, and soft facial masks." 


Beginning in the 17th century and continuing throughout the 18th century, both men and women in England and France wore obvious cosmetics.  Gender differences were less important than class differences – cosmetics marked one as aristocratic and à la mode, and were adopted as well by those who were trying to rise in social status or become fashionable.  Makeup was not intended to look natural – in fact, it was called “paint” — but instead, “…to represent one’s aristocratic identity as declarative as possible through cosmetic artifice”.  Women and men showed their respectability and class through white skin, and heavy makeup was considered more respectable than naturally light skin. Cosmetics also had practical aims – their use created what was considered an attractive face, and they could hide the effects of age, blemishes, disease, or sun. By 1781, Frenchwomen used about two million pots of rouge a year.

Make-up was heavier during the 18th century

Likewise, a rise in medical complications occurred—tooth decay, adverse skin conditions, and poisonings were often caused by the use of dangerous makeup. Lead and sulfur (for enhancing the cleavage), mercury (for covering blemishes), and white lead (for whitening the complexion) were frequent hindrances of the medical world. Men, women, and even children wore makeup to some extent in order to achieve the fashionable white face with flaming red cheeks and lips. Eyebrows were accentuated with pencils, or concealed beneath false eyebrows made of mouse fur. Hair styling and cosmetics application had a particularly important function in France in the 18th century. The toilette, or dressing, was a daily ceremony in which important persons were dressed (including hair styled and cosmetics applied) before a select audience; it was the feminine version of the lever. While the ritual was created by Louis XIV and is associated with royalty, aristocracy and even members of the bourgeois classes held their own morning dressing ceremonies before limited audiences. The ideal woman of the 18th century had hair that was black, brown, or blond (particularly fashionable during Marie-Antoinette’s reign); strong red hair was unfashionable by now and generally would be dyed a different color, although chestnut and strawberry blond were popular. Her hair was of wavy or curly texture. Her forehead was high, her cheeks plump and rosy and her skin was white. Fashionable eye colors included black, chestnut, or blue; eyebrows were divided (ie no monobrows), slightly full, semicircular, and tapered at the ends in a half moon shape.  Her lips were small, with a slightly larger bottom lip creating a rosebud effect, soft, and red.  The paintings of François Boucher are particularly useful as a visual reference for this look.



In the late 18th to mid-19th century, the ultra pale look persisted. A “lady” still didn’t need to work in the sun, and therefore should be pale...translucent, even. Some historians even speculate that consumption was so common, it became fashionable to look as though you were suffering from TB. Indeed, the white skin, flushed cheeks and luminous eyes of the illness was frequently imitated with white lead and rouge To make the eyes bright, some women ate small amounts of arsenic or washed their eyes with orange and lemon juice—or, worse yet, rinsed them with belladonna, the juice of the poisonous nightshade. The first picture of the couple I borrowed from Lady Rosacea's facebook page


In the second half of the 19th century “natural” makeup became fashionable. Victorian propriety denounced excessive makeup as the mark of “loose” women. Naively, most men believed their ladies wore no makeup, but cosmetic vendors abounded and beauty books of the era recount how carefully Victorian women used their concoctions. France developed chemical processes to replace fragrances made by the natural methods. Zinc oxide becomes widely used as a facial powder, replacing the more deadly mixtures of lead and copper previously used.  Other poisonous substances are still used in eye shadow (lead and antimony sulfide), lip reddener (mercuric sulfide), and to make one's eyes sparkle (belladonna, or deadly nightshade.  Hey, it’s important to look good!). Above all, lip and cheek rouge were considered scandalous; instead of their use, beauty books of the era suggested women bite their lips and pinch their cheeks vigorously before entering a room. Interestingly, this beauty ideal was inspired by a ravaging killer disease: tuberculosis. The disease, also called consumption, had a significant impact on early 19th century British fashion and perceptions of beauty, because “tuberculosis enhances those things that are already established as beautiful in women” at that time—paleness, thinness, and the red lips, cheeks, and sparkling eyes now understood to be caused by a frequent low-grade fever. According to historians and authors, "A considerable number of patients have, and have had for years previous to their sickness, a delicate, transparent skin, as well as fine, silky hair." The disease inspired people to “physically emulate the illness” with tight corsets, voluminous skirts to emphasize the results of said corsets, and makeup to lighten skin and redden lips and cheeks. This perceived attractiveness was not just enhanced by consumption; some believed that the prettier you were, the more likely you were to succumb in the first place.

Some commercial makeup, mostly manufactured in France, was also becoming available; these included powders, bases, and waxes containing light, “natural” color. To help scrape off all this makeup, fashion magazines proclaimed cold cream a must for every woman’s beauty regime. Also heavily advertised were anti–aging creams and wrinkle cures. (One suggestion aging women should sleep with their face bound in strips of raw beef.) Despite growing medical knowledge, dangerous cosmetics continued to be used. Whiteners, still quite popular, contained substances such as zinc oxide, mercury, lead, nitrate of silver, and acids; some women even ate chalk or drank iodine to achieve whiteness. In the 19th century women used lampblack as eye shadow. They also used rouge and at the end of the 19th century painting the lips became common. Meanwhile zinc oxide replaced white lead for whitening the face. 


The 20th century finally brought about the use of safer cosmetics; doctors began working with cosmetic companies to ensure safer standards, and “safety” became a popular selling point in advertisements. The turn of the century also brought about a new freedom of choice to wear “excessive” or “natural” makeup, as the wearer desired. Both were generally considered acceptable—although flappers were condemned by some for wearing heavy eyeliners and bright lip and cheek colors. The 1920s and 30s also saw the lipsticks (including the “kiss proof” kind), the first liquid nail polish, several forms of modern base, powdery blushes, and the powder compact. Cosmetics were now a booming business, and few modern women would be without. The 1920s also brought about another revolution: the tan. No longer did women strive for the pale look en masse. Why the sudden shift? While the wealthy prided themselves on not working,and therefore staying indoors (resulting in a pale complexion), the wealthy of the 1920s prided themselves on not working—and going outside to play. The rich now laid about in the sun, making their skin golden. Suddenly everyone longed for that "healthy" bronzed look.  

During the early twenties cream or ivory colored face powder was used by most women. Later in the middle of the twenties a powder corresponding to the nature hue of skin - perhaps a nuance brighter - came in fashion. For rouge the colors rose, raspberry, and around 1925 also orange were popular. Generally women wanted a very pale skin with cherry colored blush. Lipstick was applied as a "Cupid's-Bow" (Armor's Bow) to the upper lip. Also the lower lip was exaggerated a bit and the width of the lips de-emphasized a little. Usually eyes were held quite dark. To get this effect the whole eye was edged with a black eyeliner and then the margins blurred easily. The eyelid shadow was often painted in dark. 


During the 1930's and '40's movie stars such as Mary Pickford, Theda Bara and Jean Harlow begin to influence the style and use of makeup. The “white look” had lost ground to the Hollywood “tan” look. A color - as natural as possible - with an easy bright pink undertone then arose at the end of the thirties. In the early 1930s rouge in very light pinks was used, if any.  Natural beauties (natural with "a little support") were the ideal of the forties. Face powder was used to match the skin or to gave a nice rosy glow. To get this effect a slightly darker warmish foundation was used and then powdered over with a powder that was lighter than normal skin. Women tried to achieve a natural rosy look. For the eye dark brown or black mascara and a small eyeliner was used. Eye shadows mostly varied in muted grays and browns. Eyebrows were kept fairly natural in thickness, but were manicured into clean, well defined arches and accented by use of a dark brown pencil, getting away from the pencil thin look of the 1930′s. For lips all shades of red including clear bright reds, cherry reds, pinkish reds, and orange reds were popular. In any case lips should look full, luscious, red and soft. To effect this top lip was slightly exaggerated.


In the 1950's, pale skin was back again, and pastel hues in powder. Delicacy was the goal for foundation creams. Unlike the 1940's, when a dab of powder was all that was available or affordable for a woman, now every day began with a foundation base, a mask like complexion – a blank canvas.You completed the look with peachy or flesh coloured powder. Rosy and pastel hues of rouge applied to the apple of the cheek finished off the look.


The 1960's were a youth-oriented decade, in which the "baby boomers" were coming of age and defined the decade as their own. Makeup looks were at both ends of the scale, from the au natural look of the hippie brigade to the dramatic black and white eyes of mod high-fashion, with pastel colours making their mark on the masses. Purple lips, Egyptian eyeliner, false eye lashes and painted butterflies made their march up. The mod look peaked between early 1964 and mid-1967. During this time, youth-orientated television shows, magazines and films united young people all around the world. The love for bold geometric patterns and black and white spilled over into the white eye shadow and black crease look, as exemplified by sixties supermodel Twiggy on the cover of many a magazine. Later in the sixties, the hippie counterculture made its mark with a taste for more natural faces. Face and body painting was synonymous with the “flower power” movement. The feminist movement re-emerged in the sixties and was primarily focused on equality for all and the end of discrimination. Some feminists viewed makeup as objectifying women as sex objects and so wore very little ; others embraced makeup and wore it as a badge of honour (as had their lipstick-wearing suffrage sisters decades before. Certain ingredients are banned from use in cosmetics to protect endangered species, and other species currently used as “lab rats” by some cosmetics manufacturers.  This age of environmental concern fosters the start of many movements demanding disclosure from the cosmetics industry asking questions like “What did you do to those poor innocent puppies and bunnies to get this cosmetic product approved”?  “What’s in it, what does it do, where does it come from”?


In the 1980's girls went overboard again with the color and make-up; it was abundant and there was basically too much of it. Blush was back with a vengeance, and all possible red, pink and orange tones were used to accentuate the cheek bones. Although many girls didn't shun away from fluorescent green and purple either. Some girls looked more like warriors. So the red cheeks were back, but not quite like in the old days. It were mainly the sides of the cheeks that were painted and accentuated, and not the full cheek anymore. It gave the impression of a slightly aggressive, no nonsense, confident girl. The brighter the eye shadow and the heavier the blush, the better you looked as far as the 80s fashion guides were concerned. Add to this the outrageous clothes, shoulder pats, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and big hair and you have the best decade even to grow up as a kid :)



Back to the old days, a selection of rosy cheeks

Beauty in a jar documentary:


Most women in these portraits will not have had rosacea most likely. However, the disease was first noted in the 14th century. For a long time, rosacea was seen as a distinct medical condition that requires specific therapy. The first person known to describe rosacea medically was Dr. Guy de Chauliac, a French surgeon who lived in the 14th century. Dr. de Chauliac talked about "red lesions in the face, particularly on the nose and cheeks." He called the condition "goutterose" (French for "pink droplet") or "couperose" (now a common French term for rosacea). Others named rosacea "gutta rosa" (the Latin version of "goutterose") or "pustule de vin" (French for "pimples of wine"). Whatever the name, the condition was well-known and commonly "attributed to the excessive consumption of alcoholic drinks," according to Dr. de Bersaques. References to rosacea also appeared in early literature. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare's Henry V include descriptions of men with red faces and enlarged noses. Artists through the centuries have depicted rosacea in paintings through red faces and bulbous red noses. A painting in the Louvre, "The Old Man and His Grandson" by Ghirlandiao around the year 1480, is a well-known example. Early treatments for rosacea consisted of blood-letting from veins in the arm, forehead and nose and the application of leeches on the affected areas of the face. The use of topical treatments in the form of ointments and creams was mentioned in the 16th century. The first written reference to "acne rosacea" appeared in an English medical text by Dr. Thomas Bateman in 1812, and noted: "The perfect cure of acne rosacea is, in fact, never accomplished." (how ironic that this is exactely the current verdict by dermatologists, a good 200 years later). Other 19th century references commonly listed rosacea among the different forms of acne. Finally in 1891, Dr. Henri G. Piffard, a professor of dermatology in New York, called for distinctions among different forms of acne.

Today, dermatologists have learned that rosacea is a different disease from acne, and that therapy for
acne can often make it worse. Although the precise cause of rosacea is still unknown, most experts believe it is a vascular disorder that seems to be related to flushing. Research has given more insight in the triggers and underlying mechanisms however. See for more information: Dr. Jean de Bersaques, J: Historical Notes on Rosacea. European Journal of Dermatology. 1995;5:16-22. And: http://www.rosacea.org/rr/1996/winter/article_1.php

Overall, I guess it has long been desirable for women to have rozy cheeks, and I felt sort of good looking all the numerous paintings up, that highlight this. Even though I realize that most of them didn't have the burning and flushing and heat and pain that most rosaceans have to deal with. 



A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Skin Care

In an age when respectable women generally did not wear make-up, the clarity of a lady’s complexion was considered to be one of the principal components of her beauty.  To that end, Victorian women employed a great many methods to keep their skin soft, smooth, and blemish free.  In today’s article, we look at a few of those methods, from the most basic soap and water washes to 19th century iodine facials, arsenic creams, and patent cosmetics that reached the heights of Victorian quackery. To begin with, the Victorians believed a woman’s complexion was a direct result of her lifestyle and her state of mind.  Beauty manuals, lady’s magazines, and medical journals all emphasized the importance of healthy living and a cheerful attitude.  An 1849 issue of the Water Cure Journal declares:
“The best way of securing a good complexion is to lay in a stock of good health and good temper, and take care to keep up the supply…We know of no cosmetic equal to the sunny smile.  It gives the grace of beauty to the swarthy hue, and makes even freckles and pockmarks passable.”
Victorians also believed that, for women, excess of any kind – whether it be good or bad – was harmful to the skin.  Published in 1841, the Handbook of the Toilette states:
“Goodness of complexion, whether the skin be fair or brown, is incompatible with excess of bodily or mental labour, or excess of pleasure and dissipation.”

Dobbin's Medicated Toilet Soap Advertisement, 1869.

This belief that a female’s good complexion required little more than a quiet life and a quiet mind coalesced rather conveniently with Victorian values.  Unfortunately, the result of this wrong-headed reasoning was that, when a woman presented with a skin condition, it was often believed to be caused by a debauched and dissolute lifestyle. For example, in his 1841 book A Few Words upon Form and Features, author Arthur Freeling asserts that rosacea is a purely masculine disease, writing:
“Ladies seldom suffer from this frightful eruption, as it is usually caused by habits to which ladies are, we hope, never addicted — habitual potations of wine, spirits, beer! Faugh! the very enumeration of such potations in the same page that the sex is mentioned, is almost an insult to it.”
Though the importance of good health and a happy disposition was reiterated constantly, this did not mean that Victorian ladies had no other methods for improving or maintaining their complexions.  Women of the Victorian era had rituals and recipes for all of the skin issues we face today.


Victorian women were advised to wash their faces with soap and water using a sponge, washcloth, or soft facial brush.  Soap was believed to thoroughly cleanse the skin without irritation.  It came in a variety of formulations, including perfumed soaps, medicated soaps, and gentle soaps such as the soap produced by Pears.  As for alternative cleansing agents, such as cosmetic washes and powders, an article in the 1846 issue of the Eclectic Magazine states:
“Other means than soap for the purification of the skin are highly objectionable, such as the various wash powders: they are sluttish expedients, half doing their work, and leaving all the corners unswept.”

This did not prevent facial waters and cosmetic washes from being widely used.  For example, a great many ladies cleansed their faces with rose water, of which the 1837 Book of Health and Beauty writes:
“Though rose water does not possess many virtues as a cosmetic, the ladies use a good deal of it, in consequence of its agreeable smell, and perhaps, also, on account of its name, consecrated to the Loves and the Graces.”


Next to soap, cold cream was the most important beauty product in a Victorian lady’s arsenal.  Sometimes referred to as a “pomade for the complexion,” cold cream was used to soften and moisturize the skin.  It was applied after washing the face.  The Handbook of the Toilette advises:
“Every morning, the face and hands, and that part of the neck of ladies which is exposed to view, as also their arms, may likewise receive a portion of cold cream, to be well rubbed in with a towel.”
Ingredients in cold cream varied.  There were countless recipes available which called for everything from hog’s lard and white wax to spermaceti and mercury.  The cream, when mixed, was pure white and could be scented with (among other things) rose or orange flower water, oil of bergamot or lavender, or vanilla and ambergris.  The Book of Health and Beauty provides the basic cold cream recipe below:

Cold Cream Recipe, Book of Health and Beauty, 1837.


Victorians believed that pimples were merely the body’s way of expelling “injurious matter” that would otherwise cause ill health.  To suppress these skin eruptions was considered to be dangerous. In her 1840 book Female Beauty, as Preserved and Improved by Regimen, Cleanliness and Dress, author Mrs. Walker warns:
“The ordinary means which are employed to remove these specks, are remedies which, by their astringent action on the skin, drive back the injurious matter which nature more wisely endeavours to throw out.  The least dangerous consequence of this perversion of natural action, is a state of langour a hundred times worse than the superficial and trifling defects which females are so eager to avoid.” 
Hagan's Magnolia Balm advert, 1890.(Image via Wellcome Library)

Blackheads, on the other hand, were directly linked to cosmetic paints, smoke, dirt, and dust, and “sleeping with the face under the counterpane.” Mrs. Walker declares blackheads to be “as obstinate as they are offensive.” She advises that:
“A sponge, or very soft brush, with a little soap, will, in general, by frequent and gentle rubbing, gradually remove them.  The face must be washed afterwards, and the operation repeated every morning.  If, in spite of this, the specks remain, the only means left is to extract them by pressing them with the two forefingers, which causes neither pain nor inflammation, and at most merely produces a trifling redness for ten minutes.”
Extraction was not as straightforward a process, however, as some Victorians believed that the gunk which came out was an actual worm.  The 1841 Handbook of the Toilette states:
“On the skin being pressed, the bits of coagulated lymph will come from it in a vermicular form.  They are vulgarly called ‘flesh-worms,’ many ignorant persons supposing them to be living creatures.”

Various cosmetic washes and spot treatments were available to cure blemishes.  However, Freeling warns against “nostrums such as Gowland’s Lotion,” claiming that “all repellent cosmetics are highly dangerous.”  To support his claim, he gives several examples of ladies who attempted to treat a pimple only to end up crippled or dead:
“Mrs. S , being much troubled with pimples, applied an alum poultice to her face, which was soon followed by a stroke of the palsy, and terminated in her death.  Mrs. L applied to her face, for pimples, a quack nostrum, supposed to be some preparation of lead.  Soon after, she was seized with epileptic fits, which ended in palsy, and caused her death.  Mr. Y applied a preparation of lead to his nose, to remove pimples, and it brought on palsy on one side of his face.  Miss W, an elegant young lady of about twenty years of age, applied a cosmetic lotion to her face, to remove the ‘small red pimple.’  This produced inflammation of the liver, which it required repeated bleeding, with medicine, to remove.  As soon as the inflammation was subdued, the pimples reappeared.”

These extreme warnings had no effect on the sales of Gowland’s Lotion.  Despite being poisonous, it remained one of the most popular cosmetic treatments in the Victorian era.  The following general recipe for Gowland’s Lotion below is from the Beeton’s Dictionary of Practical Recipes and Every-Day Information published in 1871:
“Ingredients: 1 ½ gr. of bichloride of mercury and 1 oz. of emulsion of bitter almonds.  Mix these thoroughly, and apply the lotion when required with a piece of soft sponge.  The bichloride of mercury must be used with care, as it is a poison.”
An example of a poison-free treatment for acne is provided by author Adelia Fletcher in her 1899 book The Woman Beautiful.  It reads as follows:

English Acne Lotion Recipe, The Woman Beautiful, 1897.

Sun Damage and Skin Whiteners

Victorian ladies strived for a smooth, white complexion, unmarred by blemishes, freckles, or a suntan.  This meant protecting oneself against the elements with hats, veils, and parasols.  As Freeling states:
“Of all the effects that exposure of the skin to the air or sun produces, the most disagreeable is that called freckles or tan.”
If, despite one’s efforts at prevention, freckles or a tan still managed to make their appearance, there were various treatments available.  Gowland’s Lotion was almost always recommended.  As were lemon juice and strawberry water, which were believed to naturally lighten the skin.  There were recipes for spot treatments, with ingredients such as turpentine and “tincture of benzoin.”  There were also commercial skin whiteners like Beetham’s Glycerine and Cucumber and Aspinall’s Neigeline which, by the end of the century, promised to be “absolutely non-poisonous.”

Beetham's Glycerin and Cucumber advertisement, 1890.(Image via History World)

For sunburn or “sun scorch,” Mrs. Walker advises washing the face and affected areas every evening with “new milk, cream, or skimmed milk.”  While Beeton’s Dictionary of Practical Recipes and Every-Day Information recommends an emulsion of almonds made as follows:

Almond Emulsion Recipe, Beeton's Dictionary, 1871

Wrinkle Reducers
According to Mrs. Walker, wrinkles arose from “leanness.”  She states:
“We see young women whose faces are furrowed with wrinkles, while others more advanced in years, thanks to their plumpness which distends the skin, are free from these dreadful enemies.”
Her remedy?  To “endeavour to acquire plumpness.”  For some ladies this advice was not at all practical.  They resorted instead to creams and treatments, many of which were based on word of mouth.  In her 1858 book The Arts of Beauty; Or, Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet with Hints to Gentlemen on the Art of Fascinating, author (and famous 19th century beauty) Lola Montez reports:
“The celebrated Madam Vestris used to sleep every night with her face plastered up with a kind of paste to ward off the threatening wrinkles, and keep her charming complexion from fading.”
The recipe for this wrinkle reducing face plaster reads as follows:
Facial Massage, The Woman Beautiful, 1897.

The Woman Beautiful, 1897.
“The whites of four eggs boiled in rose-water, half an ounce of alum, half an ounce of oil of sweet almonds; beat the whole together till it assumes the consistence of a paste.”
Montez states that the above, when “spread upon a silk or muslin mask, and worn at night ” would not only prevent wrinkles, but also keep the complexion fair and stop loose muscles from sagging.
If a Victorian lady was too sensible to put alum on her face, she could always resort to facial massage as a means of combating wrinkles.  Adelia Fletcher’s 1899 book outlines a thorough facial massage regime, complete with illustrations, claiming:
“Massage will in time strengthen the muscles so that the lines will be effaced.”

Depilatories and Hair Removal

On occasion, a Victorian lady had to deal with unwanted facial hair.  Remedies for this troublesome problem ranged from the fairly benign (and probably useless) to the shockingly extreme.  At the safer end of the spectrum, the Book of Health and Beauty recommends using parsley water, acacia juice, nut oil, “the gum of ivy,” or “the juice of the milk-thistle.”  These remedies were thought to prevent hair growth.  If these milder methods did not work, one might resort to “muriatic acid,” diluted or in its concentrated form. If the stubborn facial hair still persisted, a Victorian lady could depend on a “quick lime depilatory” to eradicate it completely.  Unfortunately, lime was highly corrosive to the skin and using it on the face was a risky business.  Despite this danger, recipes for lime depilatories abounded, some of which included arsenic and other lethal substances.  Beeton’s Dictionary of Practical Recipes and Every-Day Information provides the one below:

QuickLime Depilatory, Beeton's Dictionary, 1871.
Quicklime Depilatory, Beeton’s Dictionary, 1871.

Extreme Skin care Methods

One might argue that basic Victorian skin care was already extreme.  And considering that everyday recipes called for arsenic, mercury, and lime, you would not be wrong.  However, there were even more extreme methods of treating the skin.  One of these, described as a “rejuvenating treatment,” involved the use of iodine.  Adelia Fletcher explains:
“It is a peeling process of the most agonizing sort.  After the raw surface heals from four to eight days—the complexion is in some cases very fair and lovely, but as expressionless as a wax doll’s; and for months afterward the faintest breath of wind or a touch of the softest cloth in bathing the face causes the most exquisite torture.  In a few months after taking this treatment, the sensitive skin commences to show thousands of criss-cross lines,which gradually deepen, till it resembles the shriveled surface of prematurely plucked fruit.”

A Chemist Giving a Demonstration Involving Arsenic, coloured lithograph by H. Daumier, 1841. (Image via Wellcome Trust)

A Chemist Gives a Demonstration Involving Arsenic, lithograph by H. Daumier, 1841.

Victorians also used steam and electricity as a means of treating the skin.  Fletcher reports the benefits of electricity facials when properly administered by a “medical electrician”:
“It has the power of stimulating all functional energy, promoting cellular nutrition, quickening the circulation, and energizing nerves and muscles; and permanent cures of acne and other skin diseases have been effected by its scientific application.”
Victorian women desperate for youth and beauty were willing to try most anything.  Lola Montez relates stories of ladies who flocked to drink the water at “arsenic springs,” which “gave their skins a transparent whiteness.”  She also states:
“I knew many fashionable ladies in Paris who used to bind their faces, every night on going to bed, with thin slices of raw beef, which is said to keep the skin from wrinkles, while it gives a youthful freshness and brilliancy to the complexion.”

A Few Final Words…

The above summary of Victorian lady’s skin care is by no means exhaustive.  With the amount of information I found while researching 19th century beauty books, magazines, and medical journals, I could have easily written a ten article series.  If only I had the time!  There is so much more I would have included – popular potions such as Denmark Lotion and Pimpernel Water, recipes for masks, glycerinated lemon lotion, and face powder.  Regrettably, I must close here.  However, if you have any specific questions on 19th century skin care (that you are unable to find the answer to yourself), please feel free to get in touch via the Contact Form.  I may have the answers among my research notes.

**Author’s Note: The recipes in this article are provided for purely educational purposes.  I neither advise your nor encourage you to use any of these to treat your skin or for any other reason.

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