Beauty Beware: History’s 4 Most Dangerous Cosmetics

by Marisa Amorasak

dangerous cosmetics

If the cliché “beauty is pain” sentiment were taken literally, it would probably result in a lineup of throwback cosmetics. Materials like arsenic, lead, and other poisons were commonly used throughout history for beautification purposes. Most of these uses can be blamed on a lack of scientific advancement, but there’s at least one that was dually used for both glamour and murder. That’s right, some of these products are so dangerous that they were actually used to kill.

1. Belladonna Eyedrops. Belladonna is a mysterious plant that often shows up in Greek mythology, and is even said to be the active ingredient in ancient Wiccan “flying ointment,” which enabled witches to fly. Its Italian translation is “beautiful woman,” due to its use by Italian women to dilate their pupils for an innocent, child-like look. A couple of drops of this muscarinic antagonist cuts off neuron function and daily use can lead to death. Belladonna was also previously used as a local anesthetic and as a recreational drug. Thankfully, Belladonna is not used in today’s beauty products.

2. Aqua Tofana. In the 17th century, Giulia Tofana made a fortune selling her miracle powder to the residents of Palermo, Naples, and Rome. Aqua Tofana made the faces and décolletage of upper-class women look paler. This porcelain look was favored throughout the Early Modern period in Europe, when dark or tanned skin suggested that a person took part in lowly outdoor labor. Aqua Tofana was made of arsenic, a toxic element known to cause convulsions, liver failure, and eventually death. Historians believe that Lady Tofana was well aware of her product’s duality, as she told her clients to only apply the product in the presence of their undesirable husbands. Aqua Tofana is said to have caused over 600 deaths, including the deaths of six of Giulia’s husbands. She was eventually convicted and executed. Arsenic is still used in small amounts in contemporary cosmetics, often under the guise of “unintentional cosmetics.” It’s legal, and can be found in products by MAC, Laura Mercier, and Sephora.

3. Skin Lightening Cream Mercury was used extensively in ancient times for medical and cosmetic purposes, before people discovered that the toxic element could cause disfiguration and death. While Chinese emperor Qín Shi Huáng Dì died from drinking mercury in a quest for eternal life (and was then buried in the element), Mercury is still quite common in modern cosmetics. Mercury’s corrosive properties make it a favorite for skin-lightening products in developing countries. These products easily make their way stateside via online sales. There are much safer ways to effectively lighten your overall skin tone (if that’s what you want) or to treat hyperpigmentation and dark spots— microdermabrasion and hydroquinone cream are among the most popular.

4. Lead Lipstick. Like Mercury, lead has a solid history of cosmetic usage that continues to this day. Primal eyeliner began with the Egyptians, who famously used lead and kohl to rim their eyes. Although cosmetics aren’t meant to be ingested, trace amounts can be absorbed through the eyes, skin, and even more notably the mouth. Signs of lead ingestion include irritability, insomnia and mental decrease. In the 1990s, concerns about lead content in lipstick gave rise to multiple studies conducted by the FDA. As recently as 2012, the FDA stated that the lead in cosmetics was no cause for concern for two reasons: 1.) the average lead amount in a survey of 400 lipsticks was 1.1 ppm (parts per million) and 2.) people shouldn’t be eating their lipstick, anyway. The FDA’s findings are interesting because some of the industry’s most popular lipsticks have much higher lead content than the average. Maybelline and L’Oreal are frequent offenders, with their lipsticks reaching up to 7.9 ppm and 7.0 ppm, respectively. Fortunately, today’s laws require ingredient lists be readily available for all consumers.

The people of times past didn’t have the same knowledge that we do about poisonous materials. So it’s truly distasteful—not to mention dangerous—when today’s cosmetic producers continue to use harmful ingredients in their products. Healthy Skin Portal offers healthy cosmetic treatments that are truly effective, and won’t leave you guessing about what’s being put on your face. Contact our representatives today to schedule a free consultation with a skincare expert in your area.

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