For the sake of beauty…

Beauty standards for women existed already in the Middle Ages; white skin and a high forehead were just a few of them. To get rid of disturbing facial hair, women used razors, tweezers, bees wax, or pumice stone. However, one could also eliminate the hair with a highly alkaline solution made of calcium oxide (quicklime) and orpigment (arsenic trisulfide), mixed with water and oil. This alkaline solution melts the hair from the skin’s surface. In Europe, its oldest recipe can be found in the 12th century Trotula. The recipe’s origin is in the Near East, where it is known as  rhusma turkorum.


Palma Vecchio, Diana and Callisto (c. 1525/1528) (c) Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Variations of it can be found in many other mediaeval and renaissance beauty books. Alternatives were probably less dangerous, but surely more creative: they included ingredients such as dog milk, boiled leeches, burnt and powdered young doves, bat blood, and others (Nürnberg, Stadtbibliothek, Cod. Amb. 55, Nr. 37; Karlsruhe, Kodex St. Georgen 73, fol. 205v und 214r).

 One might think that the arsenic-rich way of hair removal was not in use for long, especially taking into account the risk of your flesh coming off, as indicated by a book from the 16th century on how to remove or lose body hair: “boil one pint of arsenic and eight pints of quicklime. Go to a bath or hot room and place the mixture on the body, where you want to remove the hair. When the skin feels hot, wash it quickly with hot water, so your flesh does not come off”.

Surprisingly, the most recent recipe I found dates from the beginning of the 20th century AD (Italian manual “per esser belle”, Sonzogno/Milan, 1906): 40g calcium oxide, 5g arsenic, a bit of soap, and one yolk are mixed together, and then applied on the skin for one hour. One may then rub some olive oil on the skin. After washing, the hairs fall off (let’s hope just the hair, and not your flesh).

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