Skin Whitening: Discovered!

bismuth oxide
Bismuth Oxide, courtesy of

It is well known that this oxide [bismuth], under the name of pearl white, is used as a cosmetic by those of the fair sex who wish to become fairer. A lady thus painted was sitting in a lecture room, where chemistry being the subject, water being impregnated with sulphuretted hydrogen gas (Harrowgate water) was handed round for inspection. On smelling this liquid, the lady in question became suddenly black in the face. Every person was of course alarmed by this sudden chemical change; but the lecturer explaining the cause of the phenomenon, the lady received no farther injury, than a salutary practical lesson to rely more upon natural than artificial beauty in future.

MacKenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts, 1829

The take-away: If you’re going to use bismuth oxide, stay away from hydrogen sulfide. (Although that’s probably a good idea anyway.)

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