New evidence suggests oldest known skin-whitening cosmetics came out of China

Skin whitening cosmetics in China may be upwards of 3,000 years old.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

It may not come to mind as one of humankind’s oldest inventions, but skin-whitening make-up has been around for at least 2,500 years, largely credited to being invented by ancient Greeks around 500BC.

However, a new study out of China published in Humanities and Social Sciences Communications in early September, a peer-reviewed journal, suggests it was probably invented a few centuries prior.

The scientists, split between Beijing and Xian, analysed small jars found in Liangdaicun in northwestern China’s Shaanxi province, a famous site known for containing tombs of nobility from the Zhou dynasty (1050-221BC), including a regional Queen.

Through multiple chemical procedures, the team found evidence of “synthesised lead white”, a chemical that was used in both cosmetics and paint in ancient times.

It would be unlikely that the materials were used for paint because the emergence of lead white paint appeared much later. Additionally, finding the jars in the tomb of China’s elite makes it improbable they contained paint.

The discovery implied that, while the recipes diverged, the emergence of skin-whitening cosmetics at a relatively similar time in Asia and the West suggests the possibility of cultural exchanges between the East and West, probably through oral traditions. How the recipes diverged between the East and West is not known.

The Chinese recipe relies heavily on vinegar, which was used to break down a naturally occurring mineral called cerussite. The substance was likely turned into a powder and mixed with oil during the application process.

The presence of vinegar is important because the solution would become an important part of the Zhou dynasty economy and would become widely used in the manufacturing of cosmetics.

However, the scientists noted a gap in knowledge between when these jars were used and when vinegar became widely available a few centuries later.

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While the skin-whitening make-up was a sign of elite status at this time, it was not only used by women and it also grew into an important part of men’s fashion around that time.

The lead white cosmetics would become increasingly popular in ancient China and became a major part of the culture by the time of the Warring States Period (476–221BC).

“The eagerness to whiten created a huge demand for white make-up, especially among the noble class possessing a large number of social resources. This cultural and social background urged the debut of synthetic lead white in China during the first millennium BC,” the researchers wrote.

In both ancient China and Greece, lead white evolved first from the world of beauty before it began to be used in art, such as oil paintings in the West and murals in China.

“Whether in east or west Eurasia, synthetic lead carbonates were always first used for beauty purposes, which highlights that beauty played a critical role in the development of chemistry practice,” the researchers wrote.

Lead-based whitening cosmetics were popular as late as the early-20th century, until it was linked to illness and occasional deaths and was regulated out of most of the market.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.