The substance is used as a reagent to make other lead compounds and as a fixative for some dyes. In low concentrations, it is the principal active ingredient in progressive types of hair coloring dyes. Lead(II) acetate is also used as a mordant in textile printing and dyeing, as a drier in paints and varnishes, and in preparing other lead compounds.
Like other lead(II) salts, lead acetate has a sweet taste, which has led to its use as a sugar substitute throughout history. The ancient Romans, who had few sweeteners besides honey, would boil must (grape juice) in lead pots to produce a reduced sugar syrup called defrutum, concentrated again into sapa. This syrup was used to sweeten wine, and to sweeten and preserve fruit. It is possible that lead acetate or other lead compounds leaching into the syrup might have caused lead poisoning in anyone consuming it.
Pope Clement II died in October 1047. A recent toxicologic examination of his remains confirmed centuries-old rumors that he had been poisoned with lead sugar. It is not clear if he was assassinated.
In 1787 painter Albert Christoph Dies swallowed, by accident, three-quarters of an ounce of lead acetate. His recovery from this poison was slow and incomplete. He lived with illnesses until his death in 1822.
Although its use was already illegal at that time, composer Ludwig van Beethoven may potentially have died of lead poisoning caused by wines adulterated with lead acetate.
Lead acetate is no longer used as a sweetener in most of the world because of its recognized toxicity. Modern chemistry can easily detect it, which has all but stopped the illegal use that continued decades after legal use was terminated. Lead acetate, as well as white lead, have been used in cosmetics throughout history, though this practice has ceased in Western countries. It is still used in men's hair coloring products like Grecian Formula.