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By Kerry Grist on

Dangerous beauty: hazardous chemicals and poisons in historic cosmetics

The modern-day cosmetic market is vast, with many people following beauty regimes to some degree every single day. This is nothing new, with evidence of embellished looks seen in Egyptian drawings and referenced in the works of Roman philosophers. But throughout history, the search for beauty has come with risks – as far back as in Ancient Egypt the iconic heavy lined eye look was achieved with kohl, a black powder made from galena, a mineral form of lead sulfide.
Bronze kohl stick, Egypt, 1575-1194BCE

Throughout history lead has been a key ingredient in cosmetics, which seems shocking given what we now know about the risks posed by high levels of lead to the human body. Queen Elizabeth I’s famously pale complexion was achieved with Venetian Ceruse, a white lead-based make-up which is thought to be a possible cause of her death. Lead was also present in many other cosmetics, with some rouge recipes in the Elizabethan era calling for coloured dyes added to a white lead base.

White lead-based make-up is thought to have been used as far back as 3500 BC and, despite being classified as a poison in the UK since 1631, in the West it continued to be applied to faces for centuries – persisting until the Victorian preference for ‘natural’ beauty pushed the style out of fashion. While many make up products continued to use lead-based ‘paints’, they were mostly replaced by the safer alternatives of pearl white and talc by the early 1900s.

Pears’ Blanc de Perle c. 1890

Until relatively recently, it was common to create cosmetics at home rather than purchase them ‘off-the-shelf’. Recipe books including cosmetics were available from the early 1600s, and Delightes for ladies by Sir Hugh Plat is one of the earliest known household recipe books, first published in 1602. Many historical recipes contained natural and harmless ingredients, but there was often at least one option full of nasties – some even encouraged mixing chemicals – which is generally a bad idea if you’re not a trained chemist!

A 1776 hair removal recipe in Toilet of Flora calls for quicklime, nitre and orpiment which were common ingredients in historic depilatory creams. Quicklime contains calcium oxide which can cause skin burns, eye damage and respiratory irritation. Nitre, or potassium nitrate, can cause skin, eye and respiratory irritation, as well as emit toxic fumes if burned at too high a temperature. Orpiment is the mineral form of arsenic sulphide, which is very toxic. It can emit toxic vapours, and if it comes into contact with the skin it can cause scabbing, blistering and sores, as well as possible hair loss. With prolonged exposure it can even cause organ failure.

Orpiment from France, pre-1889

Arsenic is a well-known poison today, but it was also found in all kinds of beauty treatments. It is an ingredient in a nail treatment in Toilet of Flora, as well as being in tooth cement, cosmetic wash and hair dye recipes in Arnold J Cooley’s 1866 book The Toilet and Cosmetic Arts in Ancient and Modern Times. Some off-the-shelf arsenic products were even marketed as approved by doctors, such as Dr Mackenzie’s ‘medicated’ arsenic soap, or Dr Campbell’s ‘safe’ arsenical complexion wafers (which were intended to be eaten)! These products continued to be sold even into the 20th century.

Dr. Mackenzie’s Arsenical Soap. Credit: Wellcome Collection

Mercury was another toxic ingredient found in many historic cosmetic recipes. Bichloride of mercury was recommended to reduce all kinds of skin ailments in Cooley’s 1866 book, including ‘permanent discolouration’s [sic] of the skin’, acne, and even ‘pustular and scabby eruptions of the lips’ and recommended nitrate of mercury as a treatment for chilblains. In The Ugly Girl Papers – or hints for the toilet, an 1874 Harper’s Bazaar article, an ‘ointment of nitric oxide of mercury’ mixed with lard was advised to be rubbed at the edges of eyelids to restore lost eyelashes.

It is also thought that red pigmented cosmetics may have been made from mercury sulphide, also known as cinnabar or vermilion – The Ugly Girl Papers lists cinnabar as an ingredient to colour nails. All forms of mercury are very toxic, and bichloride of mercury in particular is corrosive and can cause severe burns, so not one to help sore skin ailments. It’s a wonder these recipes were recommended for such delicate areas of skin such as the face.

Homemade cold creams and lotions were a Victorian ‘no make-up’ alternative; homemade washes or ‘blanches’ had been recommended for centuries. Many of these recipes were harmless, listing simple waters scented with flowers, but the usual suspects of mercury, arsenic and lead are frequent ingredients. Other recipes included other poisons as well as chemicals – a recipe for disaster when individuals tinker with dosages for home recipes.

A 1776 recipe for ‘water for the gums’ instructs the reader to rub their gums with ‘hips acidulated with five or six drops of spirit of vitriol’ after applying a water mix. Spirit of vitriol is made with sulfuric acid, a highly corrosive substance in any dose. It was supposed to be a diluted solution, but in the 18th century there was little regulation, and ‘five or six drops’ is a dose that is open to interpretation.

Drug bottle with painted inscription, for sulphuric acid

Deadly nightshade, or belladonna, contains the active chemical atropine which is used today by optometrists in regulated doses to dilate pupils for an eye exam. However, since Roman times, the plant has been used to dilate pupils in the name of beauty. And, as the name suggests, this famously poisonous plant is not an ingredient you want to misuse!

Even recipes with ‘safe’ ingredients had risks. Many books recommending cleaning your teeth with honey and while it does have antiseptic properties, using it as toothpaste would be a sugary disaster of tooth decay in the long term. Off-the-shelf products could be harmful too, Milk of Roses was a lotion that despite its innocent sounding name often contained goulard’s extract, or sugar of lead.

By the turn of the 20th century, many of the dangers within cosmetics were better understood. However, as acknowledged in the 1897 book – The toilet: containing hints and advice on health, beauty, and dress, with innumerable recipes for the toilet table – people continued to use many beauty treatments despite knowing the risks. This was possibly as a result of it being known that many of the ingredients caused problems over long-term use, leading people to believe a little wouldn’t hurt.

Risky beauty treatments continued to exist well into the last century – radium was thought to be a cure-all wonder material in the first half of the 20th century, and it was added to anything you can think of – especially cosmetics!

Filter used to produce radioactive water, c. 1901-1930

While many historic beauty treatments carried dangers which seem obvious to us today, the modern beauty industry is still not perfect and people continue to choose to partake in harmful practices.

Recent campaigns have raised awareness around these issues, such as the link between long-term use of sunbeds and skin cancer, the dangers of skin bleaching products and the environmental consequences of plastic microbeads in skincare. There have even been cases in recent years where eyeshadows have tested positive for asbestos. Remember, beauty shouldn’t be pain.