A toxic beauty then and now

 This includes everything from poison to water. Many cosmetic products were found to be ineffective, but a large number of them also cause physical harm or even death.

Cosmetics and cosmetic surgeries are subject to stricter regulations than they were in the 19th Century, when face creams with poisons or lead-based powders were common. Cosmetic procedures can have serious side effects and even be dangerous.

reported , for example, that cosmetic injections such as platelet rich plasma injections and face fillers are causing a large number of patients to suffer from chronic and disfiguring bacterial infections. These non-invasive procedures, which cost over $1 billion annually in Australia, are very common. However, according to research, nearly one-fifth of patients may suffer from these complications.

While many people, primarily women, have embraced Botox and  believes that Botox is safe, but in 2009, the US Food and Drug Administration issued a warning, noting that Botox can cause symptoms of botulism, such as muscle weakness and difficulty breathing.

Further reading: Safety before profits: why cosmetic surgery is ripe for regulation

Even the most common beauty products still have potential risks associated with them. Consider lipstick, which is placed directly on the thin skin of the lips, readily ingested throughout wear, and reapplied multiple times throughout the day. Manufacturers are not required to list lead as an ingredient in lipsticks as it is regarded as a contaminant, but most contain lead, and some colours in much higher concentrations. An FDA test of 400 lipsticks conducted in 2011 found that every one contained lead. Nevertheless, the FDA advises that up to 10 parts per million of lead is an acceptable level.

In her book The Dangers of Dress: Past and Present Alison Matthews David describes that lead has been a popular cosmetic ingredient for centuries because it “made colours even and opaque, and created a desired ‘whiteness’ which bespoke freedom from hard outdoor work and racial purity”.

In the 1860s the American face cream Laird’s “Bloom of Youth” was advertised as a way to lighten skin for “ladies with tan or freckles or rough or discolored skin”. Skin lightener contained so much lead that some women developed “wrist drops” or radial nervous palsy.

A woman’s hand was “wasted into a skeleton” and a St Louis homemaker is reported as having died of lead poisoning following extensive, long-term use of Lairds and an “home-made preparation containing white flake and Glycerine”.

Ad for Laird’s liquid pearl, which is a cosmetic for skin and complexion, dating from 1863. Wikimedia images

Matthews David describes in her book how she purchased a vintage container that was made of “Tetlow’s Swan Down”, an American face powder dating from the 1870s. The product was marketed as being harmless, and it claimed that whitening zinc oxide powder would replace toxic products like lead, arsenic, and bismuth. She tested the powder using modern methods and discovered that it contained a “significant amount” of lead. This could be inhaled during application.

A dark history

It was not until the 20th Century that patent medicines and cosmetics were seriously regulated. The lack of oversight by the government meant that manufacturers were able to bottle and sell anything they wanted without being required to test their products, verify their claims, or label them clearly.

In the late nineteenth century, magazine advertising became a major factor in influencing the decisions of American and British consumers. Branded cosmetics were also popular during this period, and long-established brands like Pears Soap, that had been well-marketed, provided one of the few indicators for quality and safety. The majority of cosmetic advertisements emphasized the healthfulness and purity of products in order to differentiate them from harmful creams and powders.

Anna Ruppert, a “celebrated American dermatologist” (Shelton), is a prime example of how some cosmetic advertisements are false and dangerous tonics were marketed in the past as “natural.” In 1891 and 1892, there were many advertisements in British women’s magazines, including The Queen, for a lecture to be given in London by an alleged American beauty expert.

Ruppert’s book, “Natural Beauty”, was mentioned in the ads. They also promoted various products, such as a skin tonic. In the United States her signature tonic, originally called “Face Bleach”, was marketed in order to appeal to the desire for lighter skin amongst both white and African American women. In a Queen advertisement, the tonic was described as invisible and harmless: “It’s not a cosmetic because it doesn’t show up on your face after application”.

Ruppert’s product, however, was actually dangerous. The British Medical Journal published a report in 1893 revealing that the skin tonic contained the dangerous ingredient “corrosive Sublimate (bichloride mercury)” and was linked to the mercury poisoning suffered by “Mrs K”. Caroline Rance found that the Irish Pharmacy Act was violated by Ruppert in 1893. Her reputation was severely damaged as a result.


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