Any kind of spot or imperfection, known as “the cruel ravages of unsparing time,” were not only disagreeable but also something every Georgian and Regency woman wanted to avoid, disguise, or repair. In order to accomplish this, the most important and indispensable part of a woman’s toilette was her skin care products, referred to as cosmetics.
Cosmetics were designed to keep a woman’s skin translucent, supple, and beautifully tinted. They were also required to prevent imperfections and stop the skin from aging. Reputedly, regular use of cosmetics would preserve the delicacy, suppleness, and flexibility of a woman’s skin.
Cosmetics came in various forms: liquids, mucilaginous items, and pastes or ointments. Liquids, such as waters and vinegars needed to be used carefully, and, vinegars, in particular, were often claimed to be “pernicious” because although initially they gave luster and brilliance to the skin (and sometimes even removed spots), they also altered the skin’s texture, dried it out, and produced premature wrinkles. Mucilaginous products were different. They were claimed to render the skin more “supple, softer, and more polished.” Pastes were noted to have “an efficacious manner to preserve the suppleness and elasticity of the skin,” and, ointments, because they remained on the skin overnight, were superior to any other cosmetic as long as they didn’t contain irritating ingredients.
Although women today use scrubs, peels, acids, lotions, and creams to achieve translucent, beautiful, and perfect skin, in Georgian and Regency times, elite women such as Marie Antoinette, the princesse de Lamballe, Eliza de Feuillide, Empress Josphine, or Madame Récamier used the following:
Alum Water – This was used to “give lustre to … skin.” However, it was also said to be “pernicious” because it reduced elasticity and caused premature wrinkles.
Balm of Mecca – Also called the “balm of India, white balm of Constantinople, balm of Egypt, balm of Grand Cairo, and opobalsamum.” This balm was a whitish colored resin with a pungent and aromatic taste that smelled like lemons. European women used it frugally and rarely applied it full strength. Instead they mixed it with other substances, such as oil of sweet almonds or “spirit of wine,” which created a type of Virgin Milk. The balm was claimed to “render the skin [incomparably] soft, white, and smooth.” However, not all women found Balm of Mecca incomparable: Lady Mary Wortley Montague claimed it had “agreed ill with her.”
Barley Water – This water gave “extraordinary” beauty to the face and could only be created in one season, which was when the barley was unformed.
Cosmetic Washes – Half a dozen lemons infused with cow’s milk and Roche alum created a nighttime product that was rubbed on the face and produced a wondrous luster to the skin. Another wash with sulphur, olibanum, myrrh, amber, and rose-water distilled in balnea mariae reputedly gave the “face a younger look.” There was also a wash based on wheat bran infused with vinegar. It reportedly created a wash that produced “an astonishing lustre to the face.”
Denmark Wash – This wash got its name because it was used by Danish women to wash their faces and was claimed to create a translucent and beautiful complexion, while also preserving “the freshness of youth till the age of fifty.” One recipe for it was to “take equal parts of bean-flower, and water of the four colds seeds – namely, of pompion, melon, cucumber, and gourd, and of fresh cream; beat the whole up together adding a sufficient quantity of milk to make a wash, which apply to the face.”
Dill Water and Rose Water – To clear the complexion, an equal amount of dill water and rose water proved effective.
Eau de Veau – A product of boiled calf’s foot and other ingredients produced Eau de Veau, which was claimed to be a highly desirable cosmetic.
Oil of Ben – Extracted from Ben nuts, this oil was used to soften the skin and also for “burns, acrid eruptions, chapped lips, and sore breasts.” When mixed with vinegar and nitre, it supposedly also cured pimples and relived itching.
Oil of Cacao – This was touted as “the best and most natural of all pomades.” It was best used on women with dry skin, and, in England and France, it was mixed with Oil of Ben so that it would remain soft and pliable.
Oil of Talc – Similar to Talc Water it possessed skin whitening properties.
Oil of Tartar – This was supposedly one of the best cosmetics for producing a clear complexion.
Pimpernel Water – This was extolled for whitening the skin and reputedly even helped sunburn.
Rose Water – Although this water did not possess any curative or cosmetic virtues, it did smell good, which was why it was such a popular product and why it was added to various cosmetics as a scent.
Strawberry Water – Created from distilled strawberries, this water offered an exquisite smell and removed freckles and sun spots.
Talc Water – This was an ancient water that “possessed the property of whitening the complexion, and ensuring … women the freshness of youth.” To create, it involved a rather complex process and included talc, yellow sulphur, and sal ammoniac.
Vine Water – This cosmetic was easily created by capturing water drops from vines during the months of May and June.
Virgin Milk – This had nothing to do with milk but rather looked milky being opaque and whitish. In general Virgin Milk was “a tincture of benzoin precipitated by water.” It gave the skin a beautiful rosy color. Additionally, although it was supposedly good for “removing spots, freckles, pimples, erysipelatous eruptions, &c,” it never seemed to be effective in resolving any of those issues. There were also several kinds of Virgin Milk: equal parts of benzoin and storax added to spirits of wine or the more dangerous “vinegar of lead precipitated with water.”
Wash a la Marie Antoinette – Applied at bedtime, this wash was said to give a “beautiful lustre to the complexion.” It was created from lemons, leaves of white lilies, and southernwood infused in cow’s milk with white sugar and rock-alum. It was then distilled in balneum mariae.
-  The Duties of a Lady’s Maid, 1825, p. 263.
-  Ibid., p. 268.
-  Ibid. p. 287.
-  Ibid., p. 280.
-  Ibid., p. 267.
-  Ibid., p. 268.
-  Ibid., p. 270.
-  Ibid., p. 282.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 279.
-  The Toilette of Health, Beauty, and Fashion, 1833, p. 73.
-  The Duties of a Lady’s Maid, p. 275.
-  Ibid., p. 274.
-  Ibid., p. 275.
-  Ibid., p. 271.
-  Ibid., p. 272.
-  Ibid., p. .273.
-  The Toilette of Health, Beauty, and Fashion, p. 74.