Pale white skin was the signature look for the upper class in the Elizabethan era. Queen Elizabeth I's makeup represented the 16th-century ideal for women, with her porcelain skin representing nobility and earthly perfection. But to achieve that perfection, Elizabeth coated her face in lead, which slowly poisoned her body. That wasn't the only dangerous cosmetic Elizabeth used - she also rubbed mercury on her lips and likely used a mercury-based makeup remover that ate away her skin.
As a female ruler, Queen Elizabeth I was held to even higher standards than her male contemporaries. While battling threats to her throne from Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth lamented that royalty couldn't let a single spot or blemish show. So the queen used more and more lead cosmetics as she aged, reportedly wearing makeup and lipstick an inch thick in her final days. And that's just the beginning when it comes to facts about Queen Elizabeth I's makeup.
Her Makeup Was A Blend Of White Lead And Vinegar
During Elizabeth's era, the highest standard for female beauty was white skin. And women who had smallpox scars - like Elizabeth - especially wanted to cover the flaws in their skin with makeup. Elizabeth wore makeup made from white lead and vinegar, which gave her the signature pale look.
But applying lead to her face on a daily basis caused major problems, including hair loss and skin deterioration. On top of that, the lead poisoning may have eventually taken the queen's life.
Her Lipstick Contained Mercury
In addition to the lead on her cheeks, Elizabeth's lip color also contained poison. Made from cinnabar, a toxic mineral containing mercury, the lip stain gave Elizabeth her signature red mouth. But the mercury also entered Elizabeth's body through her lips.
Symptoms of mercury poisoning include memory loss, irritability, and depression, conditions Elizabeth reportedly experienced toward the end of her life.
White Ceruse Gave Her A Ghostly Complexion
Elizabeth's favorite cosmetic was Venetian ceruse, a mixture of white lead and vinegar. The queen powdered her face and neck with the substance, transforming her skin into a porcelain canvas. But ceruse contained dangerous poisons that Elizabeth and other wearers absorbed through their skin.
On the surface, the lead slowly corroded the queen's face. In response, Elizabeth wore thicker and thicker layers of makeup, reportedly layering makeup an inch thick toward the end of her life.
She Wore Lead Makeup For A Week Straight, Then Used Mercury To Remove It
In the Elizabethan era, nobles didn't clean off their makeup nightly. Instead, after her ladies carefully applied lead makeup to the queen's face, Elizabeth wore it for at least a week. During that time, the lead soaked into her skin, causing it to turn gray and wrinkled.
When Elizabeth finally had her makeup removed, they might have taken it off with a concoction containing eggshells, alum, and mercury - another dangerous poison that could slowly kill the queen. While some people in Elizabeth's time claimed the mercury makeup remover left their skin soft, that was because it literally peeled away their skin.
She Survived Smallpox, But It Left Her Permanently Scarred
Elizabeth came down with smallpox on October 10, 1562, when she was struck with a high fever. Within a week, courtiers worried that Elizabeth, still in her 20s, would die. The young royal survived, but the disease left behind permanent scars.
Smallpox scars were a common problem at the time; Elizabeth's close friend, Mary Sidney, ended up with them, too. As Henry Sidney, Mary's husband, wrote, "The scars... (to her resolute discomfort) ever since have done and do remain on her face."
Royals like Elizabeth did everything possible to cover up such blemishes.
As She Aged, Elizabeth Worried About Spots And Blemishes
As one of the only female monarchs in England's history at the time, Elizabeth knew she was being watched closely. In 1586, now in her early 50s, Elizabeth commented on the weight of these expectations while addressing Parliament:
We princes, I tell you, are set on stages in the sight and view of all the world duly observed; the eyes of many behold our actions, a spot is soon spied in our garments; a blemish noted quickly in our doings.
Although she spoke of both male and female rulers, Elizabeth's language implied concern over her own appearance. Choosing to frame the concern around spots and blemishes hinted the ruler was worried about appearance, not just actions.