Injecting toxins into the body to freeze wrinkles. Using, without medical help, harsh chemical peels that burn your skin to remove imperfections. Taking the latest appetite suppressants that cause heart failure in the hope to shed a few pounds.
These may be modern fads, but some women have always been willing to risk their healths, and their lives, in the name of beauty. Here’s to what lengths our ancestors went to achieve the beauty ideals of their times:
1. Lead face powder
Lead has been used in cosmetics since antiquity, but its use was particularly widespread during the 18th century. Back then, a white complexion, which was a sign of wealth and elegance, was very popular, and lead was the quickest, and cheapest, way to achieve it. Lead makeup was also useful to cover the smallpox scars left on the faces of those lucky enough to survive the illness. But, with regular use, lead could destroy your skin (so they’d apply more to cover the damage!) and poison the body, eventually causing death. Although we like to think that our ancestors didn’t know what they were doing, it was known at the time that heavy use of lead could cause death, but, just like smokers today, they didn’t care, and were ready to take the risk.
In fairness, it’s not like alternatives to lead for skin-whitening purposes were safer. Another substance that could help you achieve a pale complexion was arsenic. It could come in the form of pills, such as “Dr. McKenzie’s Improved Harmless Arsenic Complexion Wafers”, or face powders (which often contained lead too). Arsenic too was poisonous. It could make you go bald, cause goiter, and, eventually death.
Mercury was best known as a cure for syphilis, hence the saying, “a night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury”. But did you know that sublimate of mercury was also used as a skin peeler to remove blemishes? And because that wasn’t bad enough, use of mercury was followed up by lead to cover up any flaws that were still noticeable on the skin. Other uses for mercury included freckles bleaching and warts removal. Mercury was also a poison, and eventually lead to death. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous people still use mercury in skin-whitening products today, and they don’t always mention it on the ingredient list either. So, make sure you only purchase products from a reputable brand and dealer.
4. Radioactive skincare
After the Curies discovered radium in the early 20th century, several companies decided that it was a good idea to use it in their creams. English brand Radium, for instance, created a whole range of products which included a night cream, a vanishing cream, a talcum powder, a skin soap, a compact powder, a hair tonic, and assorted pads that could be strapped to the face. The 1915 ad said: “Radior Chin straps are guaranteed to contain Radio-active substance and Radium Bromide. If placed on the face where the skin has become wrinkled or tired the radio-active forces immediately take effect on the nerves and tissues. A continuous steady current of energy flows into the skin, and before long the wrinkles have disappeared, the nerves have become strong and energised, and the tired muscles have become braced up and ready for service.” Aren’t you glad now that, these days, new ingredients need to pass rigorous and strict tests before they can be added to skincare products?
Deadly Nightshade, or belladonna (which means beautiful women) as the Italians call it, was used as eye drops to dilate the pupils. Apparently, this made them more attractive. But it also caused sensitivity to light, blindness and yes, death too.
What do you think of the beauty practices of our ancestors?