And where better to explore this phenomenon than in the court of ElizabethI? The Queen, though no beauty, had indisputably pale skin and fair hair, traits that had been prized as hallmarks of aesthetic perfection and high social standing since medieval times. To emulate her, sycophants far and wide subjected themselves to all manner of noxious and toxic substances. A mixture called ceruse, made up of white lead and vinegar, was used as a make-up base to create a skin pallor for those whose faces were less ghostly in colour than the Queen's. Over this, they would then apply a mercury-based rouge coloured with dye to give their cheeks a healthy glow. When their skin erupted into unsightly lesions, as it invariably did when put in contact with such poisonous metals, they'd do what women throughout the ages have done and continue to do to cover ugly blemishes: they'd put some more on. And more and more.
The fatalities that resulted in the liberal use of lead-based make-up didn't deter ladies of fashion from using it. Among them was the great beauty Maria, Lady Coventry, whose death as a result of lead poisoning was well publicised in 1760. But more than a century later, lead-based make-up was still being used lavishly by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the Princess Diana of her day. Then again, she didn't flinch from using mouse hair to enhance her eyebrows and lashes, or smearing her hair in bear's grease to make it shiny.
In addition to the delights of lead poisoning, Elizabethan style victims painted their lips with ground alabaster, otherwise known as calcium sulphate dihydrate, an irritant of the eye and respiratory tract. And they used belladonna, or deadly nightshade, to widen their pupils and make their eyes sparkle.
It may all give new meaning to the appeal for 'beauty without cruelty', but it also makes you wonder what blunders involving skin creams and cosmetics in use today are storing up problems for us in the years to come.