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When Looks Kill – Deadly Cosmetics in History

We’ve all heard of the saying, “beauty is pain.” Yet, throughout history, there have been plenty of instances where beauty really did equal pain – and even death. In fact, we often don’t realize what a wild west the food, drug, and cosmetics industry was in the United States before the government decided to step in and create regulations on safety. Before the 20th century, candy would often be coated with arsenic and formaldehyde would be added to spoiled milk to make the milk sellable. From poisonous substances to dangerous procedures, dying for the pursuit of beauty has been common throughout history worldwide, and common even today.

Queen Nefertiti was known for her beauty, and her kohl eyeliner. Image Source

1300 B.C.E. – Kohl Eyeliner in Ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, men and women used kohl eyeliner to create the distinctive black outline around their eyes for cosmetic purposes, but also for religious purposes as well. The eyeliner was made of kohl, which is made from galena, an ore of lead sulfide that was used for dark tones. They also used eyeshadow around their eyes, which was made of malachite (a green mineral from copper carbonate), cerussite (a mineral containing lead carbonate), laurionite (a mineral from lead halide) and phosgenite (a mineral containing lead chlorocarbonate). Galena, cerussite, laurionite, and phosgenite all contain lead and are considered toxic. As the makeup was absorbed into the skin, this could cause irritability, insomnia, and a decrease in mental ability – symptoms of lead poisoning.

However, there may have been beneficial medicinal effects to the Egyptians’ iconic eye makeup. An analysis of the pigments used by the ancient Egyptians with electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction by French chemist Dr. Christian Amatore and his team found that the makeup could kill any bacteria that entered the eye, and also increase production of nitric oxide to boost the immune system and prevent infections. Still, the toxic effects of lead can cause long-lasting effects from infertility to madness (also known as saturnism, since many artists were known to go mad from using lead in their paintings!), that makes it a dangerous substance in the history of makeup.

Queen Elizabeth I was also known for her white makeup that was made with white lead and vinegar. Image Source

1400s to 1700s – Venetian Ceruse in Europe

One of the things Queen Elizabeth I was most known for was her iconic white makeup. From the ancient Roman times, aristocratic women would paint their face with cerussite, also known as lead carbonate. This became Venetian ceruse, a cream made of vinegar and white lead, that was applied to achieve a pale, white complexion that was popular during the time period as it signified wealth, since being tan meant working labor jobs under the sun. The beauty ideals at the time included bright, wide-set eyes, snow-white skin, rosy cheeks and lips, and fair hair. Queen Elizabeth I was known to use ceruse to hide her smallpox scars, and ceruse became commonly used by many fashionable, aristocratic women during the era. Yet, the toxic effects of lead absorbed into the skin didn’t go unnoticed during the time. Many authors noticed that the ceruse would cause the skin to become “grey and shriveled,” and some who used ceruse also experienced hair loss and eroded teeth due to the lead poisoning. As the makeup ate away at the skin, this required another layer of ceruse to cover up the scarring, leading to a cycle of applying even thicker amounts of makeup to cover up blemishes caused by the toxic makeup. In addition to ceruse, the beauty regime also included a face wash with eggshells, alum, mercury and honey, with the mercury also eating away at the skin.

In the 1700s, a famous beauty and aristocrat from Ireland died from lead poisoning due to her use of ceruse, or what was called “death by vanity.” Maria Coventry, Countess of Coventry, was well-known and hailed for her stunning beauty. In fact, she was given a guard by King George II because she was mobbed by the public for her beauty. At 19 years old, Maria married the 6th Earl of Coventry and became the Countess of Coventry. However, she was known for her heavy use of ceruse and other toxic makeup to preserve her beauty, and in 1760, she died of tuberculosis at the young age of 28, likely exacerbated by lead poisoning due to her use of toxic makeup.

These were the arsenic complexion wafers that were sold to create pale skin. Image Source

1890s to 1920s – Arsenic Complexion Wafers during the Victorian Era

Sold under the brand name Dr. James P. Campbell’s Safe Arsenic Wafers in the United States and Europe, these were little, white chalk wafers that could be nibbled to treat a variety of complexion problems including freckles, pimples, blemishes, and also advertised to cause pale skin. In fact, “consumptive chic” (consumption, also known as tuberculosis) became an ideal beauty standard during the Victorian era as victims of tuberculosis would become sickly pale and thin. However, the way the arsenic worked was by destroying red blood cells, and thanks to the toxicity of arsenic, it could also cause symptoms like damage to the kidneys and nervous system, hair loss, and skin lesions called arsenical keratosis. The wafers were marketed as being safe, and while tolerance to arsenic can be built up in small amounts, arsenic is one of the most toxic substances with a median lethal dose of 13 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. 

During this time, there were few federal regulations on cosmetics or drugs in the United States, as commerce regulations had been left up to the states as part of federalism. Most states didn’t have strict regulations on the safety of cosmetics, so dangerous products like the Arsenic Complexion Wafers and other arsenic products were allowed on the market. Unfortunately, this was far from the only toxic product that entered the market.

Lash Lure caused many women to go blind as well as other dangerous effects. Image Source

1930s – Lash Lure in the United States

World War I was a time for empowerment among American women, as more women began working even after the men had returned from war. This meant many women now had a disposable income that they were free to spend, leading to a boom in the cosmetics industry. In 1913, Eugène Rimmel, a French chemist and perfumer, created the first commercial, non-toxic mascara made out of petroleum jelly and coal tar. However, in the 1930s, a product called Lash Lure came on the market as an eyebrow and lash dye. This product contained p-phenylenediamine, which is a component of coal tar. However, because of the lack of testing regulations, this product was not tested as an allergen, so in 1933, the journal JAMA published the first cases documenting severe dermatitis (inflammation of the skin) around the eyes and exuberant conjunctival edema (swelling on the eyeball that appears as a large blister) on the surface of the eyeball after using Lash Lure. Then in November 1933, JAMA reported more cases of severe side effects, including blisters, abscesses, ulcers, and tissue death. Many women were blinded from using the product.

However, the most dangerous case caused by Lash Lure came when a 52 year old woman died of a bacterial infection. Within a few hours of plucking her eyebrows and applying Lash Lure to her eyelashes and eyebrows, her eyelids were swollen shut. A couple days later, she had become dangerously sick with a fever of 104 degrees F, and developed ulcers on her eyelid and eyeball. She died soon after.

Today, p-phenylenediamine is considered an allergen that can cause severe irritation and inflammation of the skin, and occasionally, anaphylactic shock. Phenylenediamine causes an allergic reaction in about 1.5% of people, and many products during the time period also contained the same ingredients, but Lash Lure was the only one to have been reported to cause such severe side effects.

The dangers of cosmetics were showcased during the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair’s Chamber of Horrors that included a picture of a woman who had been blinded by Lash Lure. Times magazine published an article about Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady of the United States, where they stated, “Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt discovered two photographs, pressed them to her breast crying, ‘I cannot bear to look at them.’ The photographs were of a woman who had got some ‘Lash-Lure’ eyebrow and eyelash dye in her eyes.” With the support from Eleanor Roosevelt and the public for strengthening cosmetics regulations, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act was finally passed in 1938, in part due to the aftermath of Lash Lure. This was the first time that cosmetics had been regulated in the United States.

Tho-Radia advertised their products to create glowing skin by containing radium and thorium. Image Source

1930s – Tho-Radia Radioactive Cosmetics in France

Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of radium changed the world in many aspects – from radiation therapy that cured cancer to the development of X-rays. Radium became regarded as a wonder substance that could cure everything, so naturally, this became the new trend within the makeup industry. In 1932, a French beauty company called Tho-Radia was founded by pharmacist Alexis Moussalli and doctor Alfred Curie (who had no relation to Marie Curie), with the intention of using rare earth metals in their products, such as radium and thorium. In 1933, Tho-Radia debuted their first makeup line, which included cleansing milk, skin cream, powder, rouge, lipstick and toothpaste containing radium bromide and thorium chloride that were described to use for “toning up and strengthening of the tissues of the skin, the elimination of fat, and the removal of wrinkles.”

In the packaging of the Tho-Radia products, it featured a woman’s face being illuminated by the glow of radium to illustrate the “glowing complexion” that Tho-Radia could give the user. This was marketed as “the scientific method of beauty,” as the supposed health benefits of radioactivity were advertised to the public despite having no evidence. But in 1934, Marie Curie’s death from aplastic anemia caused by her research in radioactivity brought stricter regulations for products containing radioactive elements, and people began to realize the harmful effects that radiation could have. By 1937, the French government had banned cosmetic products containing radium and thorium, and Tho-Radia quietly removed the radioactive ingredients before going out of business in 1962.

Despite being banned in many countries, skin bleaching products are frequently sold in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Image Source

1950s to Today – Skin Bleaching in Asia, Africa, and the Americas

The issue of colorism and favoritism towards those with lighter skin has created a global empire today worth more than $8 billion, profiting off of discrimination in today’s beauty standards. In a study published in 2009, it was found that lighter-skinned Black applicants were viewed as more educated and had better work experience than those with darker skin, while a famous study in 2011 found that darker-skinned Black women received harsher prison sentences than lighter-skinned Black women. For many people, having lighter skin can mean a huge difference in determining their future. 

Skin bleaching creams, pills, injections, and other products contain hydroquinones that work to reduce the amount of melanin in the skin by disrupting the melanin production. This can increase the risk of skin cancer, as melanin normally functions to protect the skin and eyes from UV rays. In many unregulated skin bleaching products, mercury is an active ingredient which can cause mercury poisoning, leading to damage to the skin, liver, kidneys, and the nervous system. In addition, it was found by the World Health Organization that around 77% of people in Nigeria and 61% of people in India use skin bleaching products, and this is only estimated to increase, as even though these products have been banned in many countries, the market is estimated to reach $12.7 billion by 2027.

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