In an age when respectable women generally did not wear make-up, the clarity of a lady’s complexion was considered to be one of the principal components of her beauty. To that end, Victorian women employed a great many methods to keep their skin soft, smooth, and blemish free. In today’s article, we look at a few of those methods, from the most basic soap and water washes to 19th century iodine facials, arsenic creams, and patent cosmetics that reached the heights of Victorian quackery.
**Disclaimer: The recipes in this article are provided for purely educational purposes.
To begin with, the Victorians believed a woman’s complexion was a direct result of her lifestyle and her state of mind. Beauty manuals, lady’s magazines, and medical journals all emphasized the importance of healthy living and a cheerful attitude. An 1849 issue of the Water Cure Journal declares:
“The best way of securing a good complexion is to lay in a stock of good health and good temper, and take care to keep up the supply…We know of no cosmetic equal to the sunny smile. It gives the grace of beauty to the swarthy hue, and makes even freckles and pockmarks passable.”
Victorians also believed that, for women, excess of any kind – whether it be good or bad – was harmful to the skin. Published in 1841, the Handbook of the Toilette states:
“Goodness of complexion, whether the skin be fair or brown, is incompatible with excess of bodily or mental labour, or excess of pleasure and dissipation.”
This belief that a female’s good complexion required little more than a quiet life and a quiet mind coalesced rather conveniently with Victorian values. Unfortunately, the result of this wrong-headed reasoning was that, when a woman presented with a skin condition, it was often believed to be caused by a debauched and dissolute lifestyle. For example, in his 1841 book A Few Words upon Form and Features, author Arthur Freeling asserts that rosacea is a purely masculine disease, writing:
“Ladies seldom suffer from this frightful eruption, as it is usually caused by habits to which ladies are, we hope, never addicted — habitual potations of wine, spirits, beer! Faugh! the very enumeration of such potations in the same page that the sex is mentioned, is almost an insult to it.”
Though the importance of good health and a happy disposition was reiterated constantly, this did not mean that Victorian ladies had no other methods for improving or maintaining their complexions. Women of the Victorian era had rituals and recipes for all of the skin issues we face today.
Victorian women were advised to wash their faces with soap and water using a sponge, washcloth, or soft facial brush. Soap was believed to thoroughly cleanse the skin without irritation. It came in a variety of formulations, including perfumed soaps, medicated soaps, and gentle soaps such as the soap produced by Pears. As for alternative cleansing agents, such as cosmetic washes and powders, an article in the 1846 issue of the Eclectic Magazine states:
“Other means than soap for the purification of the skin are highly objectionable, such as the various wash powders: they are sluttish expedients, half doing their work, and leaving all the corners unswept.”
This did not prevent facial waters and cosmetic washes from being widely used. For example, a great many ladies cleansed their faces with rose water, of which the 1837 Book of Health and Beauty writes:
“Though rose water does not possess many virtues as a cosmetic, the ladies use a good deal of it, in consequence of its agreeable smell, and perhaps, also, on account of its name, consecrated to the Loves and the Graces.”
Next to soap, cold cream was the most important beauty product in a Victorian lady’s arsenal. Sometimes referred to as a “pomade for the complexion,” cold cream was used to soften and moisturize the skin. It was applied after washing the face. The Handbook of the Toilette advises:
“Every morning, the face and hands, and that part of the neck of ladies which is exposed to view, as also their arms, may likewise receive a portion of cold cream, to be well rubbed in with a towel.”
Ingredients in cold cream varied. There were countless recipes available which called for everything from hog’s lard and white wax to spermaceti and mercury. The cream, when mixed, was pure white and could be scented with (among other things) rose or orange flower water, oil of bergamot or lavender, or vanilla and ambergris. The Book of Health and Beauty provides the basic cold cream recipe below:
Victorians believed that pimples were merely the body’s way of expelling “injurious matter” that would otherwise cause ill health. To suppress these skin eruptions was considered to be dangerous. In her 1840 book Female Beauty, as Preserved and Improved by Regimen, Cleanliness and Dress, author Mrs. Walker warns:
“The ordinary means which are employed to remove these specks, are remedies which, by their astringent action on the skin, drive back the injurious matter which nature more wisely endeavours to throw out. The least dangerous consequence of this perversion of natural action, is a state of langour a hundred times worse than the superficial and trifling defects which females are so eager to avoid.”
Blackheads, on the other hand, were directly linked to cosmetic paints, smoke, dirt, and dust, and “sleeping with the face under the counterpane.” Mrs. Walker declares blackheads to be “as obstinate as they are offensive.” She advises that:
“A sponge, or very soft brush, with a little soap, will, in general, by frequent and gentle rubbing, gradually remove them. The face must be washed afterwards, and the operation repeated every morning. If, in spite of this, the specks remain, the only means left is to extract them by pressing them with the two forefingers, which causes neither pain nor inflammation, and at most merely produces a trifling redness for ten minutes.”
Extraction was not as straightforward a process, however, as some Victorians believed that the gunk which came out was an actual worm. The 1841 Handbook of the Toilette states:
“On the skin being pressed, the bits of coagulated lymph will come from it in a vermicular form. They are vulgarly called ‘flesh-worms,’ many ignorant persons supposing them to be living creatures.”
Various cosmetic washes and spot treatments were available to cure blemishes. However, Freeling warns against “nostrums such as Gowland’s Lotion,” claiming that “all repellent cosmetics are highly dangerous.” To support his claim, he gives several examples of ladies who attempted to treat a pimple only to end up crippled or dead:
“Mrs. S , being much troubled with pimples, applied an alum poultice to her face, which was soon followed by a stroke of the palsy, and terminated in her death. Mrs. L applied to her face, for pimples, a quack nostrum, supposed to be some preparation of lead. Soon after, she was seized with epileptic fits, which ended in palsy, and caused her death. Mr. Y applied a preparation of lead to his nose, to remove pimples, and it brought on palsy on one side of his face. Miss W, an elegant young lady of about twenty years of age, applied a cosmetic lotion to her face, to remove the ‘small red pimple.’ This produced inflammation of the liver, which it required repeated bleeding, with medicine, to remove. As soon as the inflammation was subdued, the pimples reappeared.”
These extreme warnings had no effect on the sales of Gowland’s Lotion. Despite being poisonous, it remained one of the most popular cosmetic treatments in the Victorian era. The following general recipe for Gowland’s Lotion below is from the Beeton’s Dictionary of Practical Recipes and Every-Day Information published in 1871:
“Ingredients: 1 ½ gr. of bichloride of mercury and 1 oz. of emulsion of bitter almonds. Mix these thoroughly, and apply the lotion when required with a piece of soft sponge. The bichloride of mercury must be used with care, as it is a poison.”
An example of a poison-free treatment for acne is provided by author Adelia Fletcher in her 1899 book The Woman Beautiful. It reads as follows:
Sun Damage and Skin Whiteners
Victorian ladies strived for a smooth, white complexion, unmarred by blemishes, freckles, or a suntan. This meant protecting oneself against the elements with hats, veils, and parasols. As Freeling states:
“Of all the effects that exposure of the skin to the air or sun produces, the most disagreeable is that called freckles or tan.”
If, despite one’s efforts at prevention, freckles or a tan still managed to make their appearance, there were various treatments available. Gowland’s Lotion was almost always recommended. As were lemon juice and strawberry water, which were believed to naturally lighten the skin. There were recipes for spot treatments, with ingredients such as turpentine and “tincture of benzoin.” There were also commercial skin whiteners like Beetham’s Glycerine and Cucumber and Aspinall’s Neigeline which, by the end of the century, promised to be “absolutely non-poisonous.”
For sunburn or “sun scorch,” Mrs. Walker advises washing the face and affected areas every evening with “new milk, cream, or skimmed milk.” While Beeton’s Dictionary of Practical Recipes and Every-Day Information recommends an emulsion of almonds made as follows:
According to Mrs. Walker, wrinkles arose from “leanness.” She states:
“We see young women whose faces are furrowed with wrinkles, while others more advanced in years, thanks to their plumpness which distends the skin, are free from these dreadful enemies.”
Her remedy? To “endeavour to acquire plumpness.” For some ladies this advice was not at all practical. They resorted instead to creams and treatments, many of which were based on word of mouth. In her 1858 book The Arts of Beauty; Or, Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet with Hints to Gentlemen on the Art of Fascinating, author (and famous 19th century beauty) Lola Montez reports:
“The celebrated Madam Vestris used to sleep every night with her face plastered up with a kind of paste to ward off the threatening wrinkles, and keep her charming complexion from fading.”
The recipe for this wrinkle reducing face plaster reads as follows:
“The whites of four eggs boiled in rose-water, half an ounce of alum, half an ounce of oil of sweet almonds; beat the whole together till it assumes the consistence of a paste.”
Montez states that the above, when “spread upon a silk or muslin mask, and worn at night ” would not only prevent wrinkles, but also keep the complexion fair and stop loose muscles from sagging.
If a Victorian lady was too sensible to put alum on her face, she could always resort to facial massage as a means of combating wrinkles. Adelia Fletcher’s 1899 book outlines a thorough facial massage regime, complete with illustrations, claiming:
“Massage will in time strengthen the muscles so that the lines will be effaced.”
Depilatories and Hair Removal
On occasion, a Victorian lady had to deal with unwanted facial hair. Remedies for this troublesome problem ranged from the fairly benign (and probably useless) to the shockingly extreme. At the safer end of the spectrum, the Book of Health and Beauty recommends using parsley water, acacia juice, nut oil, “the gum of ivy,” or “the juice of the milk-thistle.” These remedies were thought to prevent hair growth. If these milder methods did not work, one might resort to “muriatic acid,” diluted or in its concentrated form.
If the stubborn facial hair still persisted, a Victorian lady could depend on a “quick lime depilatory” to eradicate it completely. Unfortunately, lime was highly corrosive to the skin and using it on the face was a risky business. Despite this danger, recipes for lime depilatories abounded, some of which included arsenic and other lethal substances. Beeton’s Dictionary of Practical Recipes and Every-Day Information provides the one below:
Extreme Skin care Methods
One might argue that basic Victorian skin care was already extreme. And considering that everyday recipes called for arsenic, mercury, and lime, you would not be wrong. However, there were even more extreme methods of treating the skin. One of these, described as a “rejuvenating treatment,” involved the use of iodine. Adelia Fletcher explains:
“It is a peeling process of the most agonizing sort. After the raw surface heals from four to eight days—the complexion is in some cases very fair and lovely, but as expressionless as a wax doll’s; and for months afterward the faintest breath of wind or a touch of the softest cloth in bathing the face causes the most exquisite torture. In a few months after taking this treatment, the sensitive skin commences to show thousands of criss-cross lines,which gradually deepen, till it resembles the shriveled surface of prematurely plucked fruit.”
Victorians also used steam and electricity as a means of treating the skin. Fletcher reports the benefits of electricity facials when properly administered by a “medical electrician”:
“It has the power of stimulating all functional energy, promoting cellular nutrition, quickening the circulation, and energizing nerves and muscles; and permanent cures of acne and other skin diseases have been effected by its scientific application.”
Victorian women desperate for youth and beauty were willing to try most anything. Lola Montez relates stories of ladies who flocked to drink the water at “arsenic springs,” which “gave their skins a transparent whiteness.” She also states:
“I knew many fashionable ladies in Paris who used to bind their faces, every night on going to bed, with thin slices of raw beef, which is said to keep the skin from wrinkles, while it gives a youthful freshness and brilliancy to the complexion.”
A Few Final Words…
The above summary of Victorian lady’s skin care is by no means exhaustive. With the amount of information I found while researching 19th century beauty books, magazines, and medical journals, I could have easily written a ten article series. If only I had the time! There is so much more I would have included – popular potions such as Denmark Lotion and Pimpernel Water, recipes for masks, glycerinated lemon lotion, and face powder. Regrettably, I must close here. However, if you have any specific questions on 19th century skin care (that you are unable to find the answer to yourself), please feel free to get in touch via the Contact Form. I may have the answers among my research notes.
*Author’s Note: This article is just one in my series of Victorian Lady’s Guides. You can click through to the other guides below.
Works Referenced or Cited in this Article
© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews
For exclusive information on upcoming book releases, giveaways, and other special treats, subscribe to Mimi’s Quarterly Newsletter by clicking the link below.