Mercury in ancient Cosmetics?
April 15, 2006 1:12 PM   Subscribe

Did the greeks, romans, and egyptians actually use cosmetics with a mercury content?

I can find a lot of popular articles that state that the romans and greeks and egyptians used cosmetics with a mercury base. But all of those references lead me in a circle; there doesn't seem to be a core article that stated what they used it in, why they used it, etc.

My hypothesis: The origin of that circle seems to be a misunderstanding of an article that stated that egyptian lipstick dye was made from a type of fennel; in herbology, fennel was a 'mercurial' plant, a category that includes all plants with frondish leaves, like Fennel, Speedwell, Lavender, etc... which in ancient herbology were said to have healing powers and worked within Mercury's domain, which was the mind. I think that the articles that say that cosmetics generally had a mercury content were incorrect, but I can't prove it. Can you help me prove or disprove this hypothesis?

This is for curiousity's purposes only, and for correcting some wikipedia articles. I don't need citations, and indeed didn't keep the ones I'd turned up all day. But it's been bugging me all day, especially when I read another reference to 'mercurial cosmetics' that's interpreted as 'cosmetics containing mercury' instead of 'made from a mercurial herb'.
posted by SpecialK to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (7 answers total)
you may already have found this - it's easy enough to google - but mercury is used to lighten the skin (as mercurous chloride). i have no idea if this is (relatively) new, but it's a possible reason for the use of mercury rather than the plant.
posted by andrew cooke at 1:43 PM on April 15, 2006

oh, and other mercury compounds too.
posted by andrew cooke at 1:44 PM on April 15, 2006

Hm, you're right. there's not much online about the full relationship, but it's quite true. I first learned it on my trip to Rome during a tour. It's one of the asides they tell you about life in that day along with birth control being a mixture of olive oil, wine and pigeon droppings (ah the things that stick in your head.)

It was used in part as a skin-whitening agent. Apparently Galen, an ancient Greek physician, invented cold cream to combat the use of some harmful cosmetics containing mercury... although mercury continued to be a problem in cosmetics in the world for quite a while, even to modern times.

I know you want something that overtly states the relationship between mercury and roman/greek cosmetics online, but I fear I can't find anything more indepth just yet from the obvious wiki or odd online article. Perhaps a local university can help you with academic texts?
posted by eatdonuts at 1:56 PM on April 15, 2006

Romans certainly used lead to lighten their skin, and as eatdonuts points out, mercury is still used in many modern cosmetics. And this 16th-century English text includes cosmetic recipes with mercury (quicksilver).

So it doesn't seem that farfetched.
posted by occhiblu at 2:21 PM on April 15, 2006

At least one mercury compound used in cosmetics in ancient times was cinnabar.
posted by TedW at 2:21 PM on April 15, 2006

(As an aside, though, I do want to add that as a former tourguide in Venice, I would urge you to beware anything that you "learned from an Italian tourguide." Making up stories and passing along urban legends as fact are ridiculously common, and I often spent a lot of my own tours correcting bad info given out by other guides.)
posted by occhiblu at 2:30 PM on April 15, 2006

Aside taken occhiblu.

posted by eatdonuts at 2:35 PM on April 15, 2006

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