If you’ve spent longer than 15 minutes in a cosmetics or skincare aisle and read at least one box, you will have noticed that most brands like to tout all kinds of fancy ingredients that will somehow transform your skin into soft, supple baby flesh, you disgusting old crone. Animo-Peptide Complex! Words like “Skintuitive” or “Matrixyl 3000”! Micro-Gold Particles (just incase you feel that you would be better off looking like a bottle of Goldschläger, I guess)! A product that claimed to contain “natural diamond dust, plants, and lipoamino acids,” which left me asking, “WHAT PLANTS? TELL ME WHAT PLANTS. Broccoli? Sunflowers? Crushed four-leaf clovers?”
Anyway, fancy additives are nothing new to cosmetics. Like toddlers in a damp sandbox, people have been experimenting with what they can put on their faces from day one. Sometimes this works, like with carmine, a red pigment that’s made from crushed cochineal beetles that is still used today. Other times, it is less successful, like with radium, which makes your face glow up until the point where it melts off. Let’s start with something less deadly, but still not great…
Okay, it won’t kill you per se, but is high on the Generalized Grossness Scale (other things on my personal one include videos where babies puke into peoples’ mouths, rotten vegetable leaves, and the smell of old slimy cilantro. Seriously, I once put a bunch in a jar of water because I thought it would regrow like green onions and instead it just turned into a pile of slime and smelled like old horse vomit. I still cringe when I think about it UGH JUST GET IT OUT OF MY APARTMENT). In lots of early societies, the idea of using urine from both humans and animals as a sort of skin care or cosmetic seemed like a great idea. Maybe they saw all that leather being tanned and thought, “Hey, if it works on old cowhide, maybe it’ll work on my cowhide!” Roman physicians in the first century recommended that people use Portuguese urine to whiten their teeth. Urine treatments continued on through time, meaning we are left with amazing historical entries about people drinking and rubbing pee on themselves, like this one from 1685 in which a woman named Madame de Sévigné tells her daughter: “for [her] vapours [she takes] eight drops of essence of urine.” (I love the idea of it being as ‘essence,’ which just makes it sound like it’s been watered down even more, like an Eau de Toilet [RIMSHOT].) Elizabethan England was also briefly into the idea of using urine as a way to brighten the face, or at least make it smell vaguely like a truck stop bathroom. One suggestion was that people wash their skin with “strong vinegar, milk, and urine of a boy,” which sounds more like some sort of horrible smelling hazing ritual than a skincare thing.
Part of this makes some sort of sense: Urine is mostly water, but does contain urea, a salt that can aid in dissolving keratin, along with having moisturizing properties by acting as a humectant, allowing it to trap water and keep things moisturized. You can still buy plenty of creams that contain urea, although it is now made in a lab and not from old pee. As for tooth whitening, as urea decays, it turns into ammonia, meaning that it also now comes with whitening powers, allowing you to have a beautiful white smile with all the freshness of a high school bathroom.
LEAD! (Also MERCURY!)
If you’re me, pale skin is something that signifies that I have been sitting at my kitchen table a lot lately researching historical uses for urine. But if you’re someone from various cultures throughout large swaths of world history (including North America, South America, East Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, etc. SIDE NOTE: Skin whitening/lightening is still very much a thing that happens and is a deep and troubling issue that I will not be covering in this particular post), pale skin was a sign that you were a fancy person who didn’t spend tons of time in the sun doing things like working. As people were aiming for less of a “pasty nerd with a curious Google history” look and more of a “I am pale and translucent except for all of these hideous sores” thing, lead was often viewed as the ticket to gleaming, porcelain skin, right up until the point where it killed you.
Throughout Western Europe in the 18th Century (or “The Age of Enlightenment, Except For That Part Where We Rub Lead On Our Faces”), both men and women used white lead powders and paints (know as Venetian ceruse) to colour their skin. Men would also darken their eyebrows a deep black using lead, proving that you could literally kill a man with a sharp brow. Red-tinted lead powders were used as blush to really emphasize the whole deadly pallor thing they had going on, usually in triangular or round shapes on the cheeks (FYI, if you’re wondering what the ideal look in 1700s England was, it was white skin, dark hair, small red lips, and flushed cheeks). If lead-based pigments weren’t available, then people would go to the next-best thing, a red compound known as cinnabar (if you’re a scientist in the 1700s or a Pokémon trainer; or, if you’re a scientist now, MERCURY OXIDE!). It not only gave someone a beautiful flush, but it really emphasized the red in their cheeks by causing the skin to peel off aieeeeeeeeeeee (mercury poisoning can actually cause a pink flush in your cheeks, but it also causes you to feel like insects are crawling under your skin, so maybe just stick with blush). In addition, mercury was used as a way to remove blemishes and freckles (in the 1880s-1900s) thanks to its ability to cause your skin to peel off (desquamation!), much like how I remove weeds from my garden with an axe that I’ve set on fire.
Lead usage was basically everywhere where people wanted nice thick streaks of white or black. Geishas, from the Edo period until around the end of the Meiji Era, used white bases that included a lot of lead (they later replaced it with rice powder, which caused fewer horrible face lesions). In the Middle East, parts of Africa, and Southeast Asia, many types of kohl were made using lead oxides, which – again – can be absorbed through the skin, causing a gradual buildup of lead in the circulatory system. Lead build-up in the system can cause you to be impervious to x-rays horrible illnesses and side effects, such as brain damage, anemia, nerve damage, paralysis, and death.
Another issue was that, if you had a population of women with insanely high lead counts thanks to lead-based makeup, this would end up being passed on to their children if they were pregnant or breastfeeding, meaning these kids would also end up with lead poisoning, resulting in birth defects, chronic illnesses, and deformities. If that wasn’t enough, the Romans built massive lead aqueducts between 500 BC and 300 AD, possibly poisoning entire cities, because lead makeup and lead-infused breast milk just wasn’t enough. The most ironic thing about lead makeup is that, since it was destroying the wearer’s skin, many people would try to cover up the damage with more lead. It’s like getting hit by a car and then treating yourself by getting run over by an ambulance.
Yes, if you felt like the lead powders aren’t getting you pale enough or killing you fast enough, then arsenic powder was for you. During the Victorian age, arsenic was mixed with chalk and vinegar and applied to the skin to whiten it and help to prevent aging, which I’m sure it did by making sure they didn’t age because dead. Arsenic can be absorbed through the skin, people! STOP PUTTING IT ON YOUR BODY.
Maria Gunning, the Countess of Coventry from 1752 to her death in 1760, was deemed one of the most beautiful women around at the time. She also loved using lots of lead and arsenic-based makeup. Bad idea, Maria!
For those who didn’t want to put it on their body, there was the option of just fucking eating it. Thanks to an 1851 paper by Swiss physician Jacob Von Tschudi that talked about how some Austrian peasants just looked so lovely and full of life because they ate arsenic to help improve their complexions, a number of companies decided to put out edible arsenic wafers through the mid-to-late-1850s that allowed people to just pop a few bits of arsenic and then get horribly sick. You could also buy it in soap form. What could go wrong? (Answer: EVERYTHING.)
The original makeup obsessives were the ancient Egyptians, who liked it dramatic, heavy, and possibly deadly. One lipstick recipe used by ancient Egyptians called for small amounts of bromine mannite to boost the red colour. The downside of this is that bromine is incredibly toxic, so, to quote an old Canadian TV PSA, “Don’t you put it in your mouth (nuh uh)” (NOTE: Okay, if you are a non-Canadian or are a Canadian under the age of 20, please just watch this and imagine what is was like being a kid in Canada in the ’90s with this playing constantly on TV. SHUT UP PUPPETS, I’LL PUT WHATEVER I WANT IN MY MOUTH). Oh, and it would probably make the person kissing you very sick as well, so unless you’re Chris O’Donnell in Batman & Robin and you’re wearing rubber lips to prevent poisonous kisses, you’re screwed. Also, I kind of hate myself for remembering that much about Batman & Robin.
Bromine is an old one, but a more recent killer is…
Did you ever put a highlighter on your face and go, “Man, I wish my skin glowed. Also I want some face tumours”? Then go back to the early 1900s and get some Radior! In 1917, the London-based company Radior created a series of cosmetics that contained radium, meaning you could buy an actual face powder called “Flesh” full of radium in the hellish dystopia that London apparently was in the 1900s. Other brands, such as Tho-Radia (a French company started in 1933 that made things such as lipstick, skin creams, and toothpaste containing thorium chloride and radium bromide) and Artes (also started in 1933, creators of a skin cream made with “radium gas”) made claims that their products would help “assist blood circulation” and “stimulate cellular vitality”, along with “brightening” complexions.
You could even pop down to the spa for a radioactive mudpack (in the 1920s), as shown in the video below.
Radium is no joke, though. It’s a radioactive element and caused many of its most ardent users to die from cancer and things like “radium necrosis” (noted in a 1925 New York Times article on people dying around all this neat radioactive stuff. Turns out it would cause your jaw to literally fall apart and become riddled with horrible tumours). I’d be lying if I said that heavy metals weren’t still an issue when it comes to cosmetics today. Minute traces of a number of these compounds (along with other hazardous elements) can still be found in a number of products, although at much, much lower levels (please note that while lipstick might contain traces of lead, so do certain kinds of rice, possibly more!). There are still a lot of issues to work out, but for now, please enjoy this quote from an article on radium uses in the early 1900s: “Radium was put into chicken feed with the hopes the eggs would self-incubate, or at least self-cook.” Amazing. Just amazing.
How We Realized Putting Radium in Everything Was Not the Answer