Monday, August 13, 2012

Making a curious Varnish for the Face

I will begin with saying that this was the most surprising of all the recipes I have tried so far as it didn’t behave at all as I thought.

The updated recipe
Brandy (cheapest brand possible) 44ml
Sandarac 2 gram
Benzoin resin 1 gram

This is something of a famous first. No need to substitute any of the ingredients and the original recipe has measurements for everything. So it was very simple to just pare it down to a suitable test sample. I grounded the resins before pouring it into the brandy. I used a small jar with a lid. After that I just shook it every time I passed it until a week had passed.

Both Sandarac and Benzoin are soluble in alcohol, but though I can’t find any information on how strong the alcohol should be for the Sandarac, Benzoin is generally recommended to be dissolved in 80% alcohol, dissolving even easier if you warm it a little. Brandy is about 40% and this recipe says nothing about warming the solution either. The Swedish pharmacopeia of 1775 recommends 50% alcohol in a ratio to 6 parts alcohol to 1 part Benzoin. Let it stand for three days and strain though a paper. (Source) A recipe with both stronger and more alcohol than the recipe I used.

Benzoin resin

The first days it was noticeable that the resins were slowly dissolving, the amount on the bottom of the jar decreased and the Brandy got more and more cloudy. By the end of the week it seemed to stop dissolving and I decided to try it, even if it the resins weren’t fully gone. Possibly brandy was stronger in the 18th century, or the solution needed more time. Or the writer of the recipe was just plain wrong

The result
As both Sandarac and Benzoin are used in varnishes today and as the title of the recipe says as much as well, I fully expected this to act like a varnish. I’m not alone. I have recently acquired Sally Pointer’s book The Artifice of Beauty (highly recommended!) and she take note of this recipe saying that this must surely not have been used, as having a varnished face, stiff and with the varnish cracking, can’t have been either becoming nor comfortable. So my expectation of this recipe was that it would feel like a stiff masque.

Not so. Not so at all.


I dipped a cotton pad into the solution and rubbed it over half of my face, in the same manner you use a toner. It dried quickly and then you couldn’t feel it. Both halves of my face felt the same, but when I ran my fingers over my cheeks I found that the side with the varnish felt much softer! I thought I was imagining stuff, so I went and asked my husband to do the same, without telling him why, and he noticed the same thing. And though I couldn’t detect any sheen as I expected, being varnished and all, I noticed that the varnish made my skin look more even. In both look and feel the effect was very much like a modern primer with silicon! The opposite of what I expected, in other words. I think that this may very well have been used by ladies who didn’t want to use paint, as it certainly evens out your skin. Min Self pointed out that tincture of Benzoin was used as a skin whitener in the 19th century. I have a bit of redness on my cheeks and though I’m not certain, I did think that the cheek with the varnish looked slightly less red. Possibly it would whiten the skin after prolonged use and if that is the case, then I’m certain ladies of the 18th century would find this varnish useful.

Another nice thing about it is the smell, which is very pleasant. Sandarac doesn’t smell much, though what can be felt is clearly resinous, but Benzoin has a distinct vanilla-ish scent. The varnish smelled woody vanilla in just the right proportion not to be too much, despite being applied on the face. This is not surprising. Though, as Benzoin is used in the perfume industry as a base note.

What would I do different?
Well, I will keep the varnish in the jar to see it the resins will dissolve completely and if it does, then I will of course test it again. However, I very much doubt that it will ever acquire the hard varnished effect I first expected.

What I would do different is to use Benzoin of a better quality. There are several kinds and the one from Siam is considered the only one that really is suitable for cosmetics. The Benzoin I found in an art supply store was meant for just varnish and had particles of vegetable matter imbedded. For a test that was all right, but good grade Benzoin isn’t too hard to find. I might try to warm the solution as well and see if it will dissolve better.

Will I do it again
Good question. The effect was certainly nice rather than the opposite and the pleasant smell alone would make it suitable as a perfume. It wouldn’t be wrong to anoint you with it for an 18th century event. However, using something with that much alcohol may irritate your skin, especially if you are sensitive. I do have sensitive skin though and had no ill effects after using it for one day, but I’m not sure I would repeatedly use it on my face. There is an even bigger but with the Benzoin because it’s not uncommon to get allergic reactions from this substance. Now, I have been testing this varnish on the same spot of my wrist for a few days and had had no reaction or ill effects at all. So as for now I’m inclined to use up my sample. Not in the face, but over throat and bosom, for added evenness and a peasant scent. If I don’t react to it, then I will make a version with better quality Benzoin.

If you want to test this recipe, then I strongly suggest that you should do a patch test to see if you react to it. Also, don’t make the varnish in a jar and bottle that you care for. The un-dissolved resins make for a sticky substance that is hard to get off. Strain the finished varnish into a nice container once you are done, instead.

This experiment was so much fun to and a shining example to why I like trying these old recipes. You just can’t predict how they will behave when you make them. Now I’m wondering about a thing I have read here and there over the years about 18th century makeup. I have read that ladies back then really did varnish their face, but the question I have now is; Did they really? Or have the authors found recipes like this and drawn the wrong conclusions?


  1. Huh! I like everything about this recipe: the evening effect, the scent, the softening. Hmmm. Might try it!

    Very best,


    1. Yes, it does behave quite nicely. :D If you try it, you must tell me what you thought about it!

  2. I read a book once on the history of cocktails, but it mentioned that most alcoholic liquors were stronger before the 20th century when that temperance movement took place. So what's now called "naval rum" and famed for being extra strong, is more akin to regular rum from the 18th and 19th centuries for example.

    I noticed when translating Petit Albert, that a lot of recipes that called for aqua vita in it, would be reprinted in other books as wanting brandy instead.

    1. Yes, that might be the case, though some liquor were weaker. In sweden the distilled loquor called "brännvin" was decidely weaker, for example.

      But after an addtional week there hasn't been any more resin dissolved at all, so 40% is definitly too weak for a complete success! :)