"Happy skin, happy life" is one of the mantras of the contemporary beauty community.

Farm-to-face ingredients, minimal makeup and glass skin are ruling the market at the moment, accompanied with a great care in picking non-toxic ingredients that can enhance beauty and creativity without damaging the skin.

But that wasn’t always the case, and "beauty can kill" used to be much more than just a saying. 

Forget all you've seen on the internet about beauty tutorials, because the record for the most toxic makeup in history has its roots in most European royal courts of the Renaissance. 

The protagonist? A very special foundation that went - quite literally - viral in the early Renaissance: the Venetian Ceruse.

Portrait of a Woman, by Guido Reni, 1639

Marketed from the 16th to the 19th century before being definitely cut out and replaced with healthier alternatives, the lead-based Venetian ceruse was the hottest, consistently sold-out, and most coveted product to achieve a milky alabaster complexion. 

Also known as "spirits of Saturn" and taking its Venetian name from the Italian port city, the fashion capital of the time, ceruse was composed of venomous powdered white lead (also known as lead carbonate). 

Despite the minimum quantities of metal used in the formula, making it non-deadly but equally toxic, applying the cosmetic every day could slowly but steadily lead to chronic poisoning. 

Regular users of Venetian ceruse reportedly experienced the loss of hair, eyebrows and teeth, pitting and scarring of the skin and even long-term health problems such as early cognitive decline. Today, we know this metal toxicity to be the possible cause of infertility and even coma, seizures and death.

Because of the product's acidic and depilatory effect and the heavy price it claimed on the skin, women found themselves caught in a conundrum: while they used ceruse to obtain a more translucent, perfect skin, the damages caused by the paste forced them to apply a thicker and heavier layer of it as time went by.

Day after day, the toxic ingredients in the formula abraded the health of unaware fashionistas all around Europe.

However, many women and historical figures – as well as some crowned heads, Queen Elizabeth I included – have been reported to sport this killer look.

But then, if ceruse created an inescapable vicious circle, why was it so popular? 

Looking at the past, it's easy to imagine that ceruse might have been the only option available for the women of the time. Well, that'd be incorrect.

Although far from the scale of the contemporary beauty community, the Renaissance saw in the cosmetic industry a flourishing business and women were offered at least a couple of alternatives to Venetian ceruse, starting with the less dangerous alabaster (sometimes used for retouches throughout the day) and powdered crushed mother-of-pearls.

Although such options were available, ceruse was, above all, convenient: it was long-lasting and easy to apply, allegedly offering a natural coverage for spots and scars.

Sounds like a must-try, right?

In fact, contrary to popular belief, ceruse was far from the grotesque mask-like cosmetic product we imagine today. It should have looked and acted like a fairly sheer concealer, and it could be layered or mixed with pigments to obtain the desired effect.

Once the lead-based powder was blended with vinegar and water women of the time applied the mixture to their faces, necks, and chests to make the skin look more youthful, smooth and lily-like.  

Illustration from "Sunlight and Shade. Being poems and pictures of life and nature. Illustrations by F. Barnard", page 109

But Venetian ceruse was also versatile. 

The product could be blended with pigments or different ingredients. 

Sometimes women would add egg white to the ceruse paste, although the dried substance would cause an unpleasant mask-like effect that wrinkled and cracked during the day.

Other ladies added vermillion to their ceruse, highly popular during the time both for painting faces and canvases, to add that “pinch of colour” to the lips and to the apples of the cheek.

Used in painting and cosmetic production, vermillion was a relatively easy mixture to obtain in the apothecaries of the time, and its popping red was obtained by a cinnabar-extracted mercury and sulfur.

The result was a venomous lip-and-cheek tint. 

The Empress Josephine and the Fortune Teller, 1836, by Sir David Wilkie

Many women, more likely to wear ceruse than men, found themselves trapped in a self-destructive cycle. 

Even though some voices raised against saturnism (such as alchemical writer Noah Biggs, who addressed the matter as early as 1651 in his Chymiatrophilos, mataeotechnia medicinae praxes: The Vanity of the Craft of Physick), ceruse remained highly popular for many years.

The premature passing of the beautiful 28-year-old London socialite Maria Coventry, Countess of Coventry, in September 1760 is attributed to saturnism. Her fate was wildly recognized as "Death by Vanity". In 1767, the early death of Maria Coventry's 26-year-old rival, the courtesan Kitty Fisher, is also attributed either to lead poisoning or smallpox.

Many, however, were the victims of this record-breaking cosmetic.

Surprisingly, the coveted deadly foundation kept being used until disbanded in the 1800s.
Find all the secrets and curiosities about the Venetian Ceruse on Snapchat , in a special episode entirely dedicated to the curious case of this very special, deadly makeup.

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