Beauty is pain. Or at least that’s the age old adage we tell ourselves when we’re in the middle of a bikini wax. But most of us are willing to suffer a bit in an effort to see results. We’ll inject toxins into our foreheads in an attempt to stave off aging, run needles over our face until we bleed to improve our skin tone and shoot painful lasers over our skin to remove unsightly body hair. And while it might seem like we’re willing to put ourselves through hell and back for beauty, it’s nothing compared to the agonizing and downright dangerous beauty trends of years past. Arsenic for a smoother complexion? Deadly nightshade for bigger eyes? Radiation for (literally) glowing skin? Some of today’s beauty trends might seem a little extreme, but at least none of them are going to kill us.
Once upon a time, when princesses wanted their skin as white as snow, they would cover their faces in a thick lead makeup. Lead has been used in beauty since antiquity—Romans used it as foundation and rouge, and it was a main ingredient in the kohl the Egyptians used around their eyes—but it reached peak popularity in the 16th to 18th centuries when women would mix it with vinegar to create a paste to slather on their faces. The deathly pale look was popular at the time, and it helped to even out the complexion and hide the appearance of smallpox which was prevalent in the days before sanitation. After repeated use of white lead, the skin would slowly begin to rot away and leave scars, which then needed to be covered by more makeup, worsening the situation. Of course a peeling complexion was the least of their problems, as lead also causes high blood pressure, constipation, severe abdominal pain, miscarriage, memory loss, paralysis and death. The use of lead diminished in the late 1700s after the death of several aristocrats were linked to the toxin, but it still found its way into cosmetics all the way into the 20th century. Trace amounts of the poison can still be found in some products today.
We’re not above using circle lenses and lash extensions to make our eyes look bigger, but we draw the line at putting poison in our eyeballs. Deadly nightshade, more commonly known as belladonna, has been used for centuries by women in Italy as a way to dilate their pupils and make their eyes look more attractive. The berries themselves can be fatal in small quantities, but it does have a number of uses in the medical community as a sedative and pain killer for patients of whopping cough and Parkinson’s, and it’s even still used by some ophthalmologists to dilate the eye. Of course these are rare, medically supervised uses of the plant. Up until the turn of the 20th century women were using belladonna drops daily to get big beautiful eyes—of course they would also suffer from blindness, heart failure, coma and death.
In the 1800s women began using arsenic as the latest go-to beauty product for getting a clear and pale complexion. And for the most part, it did work as promised. As arsenic kills the red blood cells in the body, it naturally improves skin tone and whitens the skin. Women took it in small doses to build up a tolerance to the toxin, but if it was suddenly discontinued their skin would deteriorate quickly, forcing them to continue using it. “Dr. Mackenzie’s Improved Harmless Arsenic Complexion Wafers will produce the most lovely complexion that the imagination could desire, clear, fresh, free from blotch, blemish, coarseness, redness, freckles, or pimples,” claimed a box of one of the most popular beauty pills in the 19th century. In addition to the promise of perfect skin, women could also expect vomiting, internal bleeding, hair loss, blindness, convulsing and death. Even after the passing of several women were linked to arsenic poisoning, it remained a popular beauty product well into the ‘20s. Today, arsenic is commonly found in counterfeit beauty products that are unknowingly purchased at seemingly reputable outlets.
Like lead, mercury has been a favorite of beautiful women for centuries. It was used as a cure for blemishes like freckles and pimples, similar to an exfoliator. It was often mixed with other cosmetics to make them more effective, and became extremely popular in 18th century France. At this time washing wasn’t considered healthy, and women would often paint their faces with white lead then layer on a thick red streak of blush, leaving both on their face until they began to fade—then it was time to reapply. Their rouge of choice? Cinnabar, a mercury sulfide compound, used for millennia as a pigment, more commonly known as vermillion, in architecture and pottery. Even through the thick lead makeup, mercury was easily absorbed into the blood stream and caused peeling skin and discoloration (thus exacerbating the need for more lead makeup), damage to the neurological system, loss of hair, teeth, and nails, high blood pressure, kidney failure, birth defects, and death. Trace amounts of mercury have still been found in modern cosmetics in countries with little to no regulation on beauty ingredients.
When Madame Curie discovered radium in 1898, little did she know she had just found the latest must-have beauty product. “An ever-flowing Fountain of Youth and Beauty has at last been found in the Energy Rays of Radium!” announced a 1918 advertisement for Radior cosmetics. “When scientists discovered Radium they hardly dreamed they had unearthed a revolutionary ‘Beauty Secret.’ They know it now. Radium Rays vitalize and energize all living tissue. This Energy has been turned into Beauty’s aid. Each and every Radior Toilet Requisite contains a definite quantity of Actual Radium.” Radiation-based beauty products were all the rage in the 1920s and ‘30s, and it was added to everything from skin cream to toothpaste. Like our skin products today, it was touted as the latest scientific breakthrough in beauty, and women couldn’t get enough of these radioactive treatments. Further scientific studies then found that it was actually deadly and would cause vomiting, anemia, internal bleeding, seizures and cancer.
Chances are the last time you had an x-ray at the doctor’s office you were covered in a thick, heavy, lead apron to protect you from the dangerous rays. Well at the turn-of-the-century, ladies were paying to be blasted with that deadly radiation as form of hair removal and cure for a number of skin conditions like eczema and acne. Despite studies showing that repeated exposure to x-rays caused burns and cancer, it continued to be the preferred treatment for young women who would spend up to 20 hours exposed to the radiation over 10 to 20 treatments. Known side effects at the time included thickening of the skin, dermatitis, discoloration and telangiectasia (broken and dilated capillaries), but most opted for the procedure anyway. In addition to being quick and painless, it was easy to have done almost everywhere as x-ray machines could be found in any beauty parlor—no medical license was required to perform the procedure. By the 1940s it became apparent that the ’20s fad had actually caused cancer in a large number of women and had completely eroded the faces of others.