Bizarre beauty products from the past


Dec 02, 2014 by British Blog

For modern women (and men) who are interested in grooming, there is a plethora of products to choose from. Hair extensions, cosmetics in every colour and texture known to mankind, contact lenses that completely change the colour of the eyes, hundreds of perfumes... the choices are almost endless. For men and women of the past, however, the choice has not been so great, indeed for many of them the choice was between beauty and death. Here are just a few of the bizarre beauty products that were once considered essential but are now considered strange at best and lethal at worst.



Lead, that famous deadly metal, was for centuries a key ingredient of beauty products. The Ancient Greeks mixed it with olive oil to lighten their skins (and inadvertently shorten their lives), as did the Romans, Ancient Egyptians, Elizabethan Britons and most of 15th to 18th century Europe. Side effects of lead-based cosmetics could include mood changes, insanity, and - ironically - skin trouble. The constant use of lead-based skin creams gradually ate away the skin, leaving major scarring, which the unfortunate sufferer would then cover up with an even thicker layer of lead-based make-up.

The Ancient Egyptians had it worse than most, since both their facial cosmetics and their eye make-up were chock full of lead. Putting lead around the eyes is particularly dangerous, since the skin in that area is thin and therefore liable to absorb increased amounts of toxin.

Eventually, the link between skin care and early death began to be noticed: when celebrated Irish beauty the Countess of Coventry died in 1760, the press openly attributed her demise to her cosmetics. However, lead is still occasionally found in lipsticks to this day.


The deadly search for pallor

Many civilisations have prized a pale skin, and many have gone to extraordinary lengths to achieve it. As well as the lead-based cosmetics already described, Elizabethan women ingested arsenic to make their skin pale and glowing, some attached leeches (usually to their ears) to drain the colour from their faces.


Skin 'care'

Our forebears also used some dangerous - and downright revolting - techniques to improve their appearance. Legend has it that Cleopatra used a mixture of donkey's milk and crocodile dung as a facemask, while in Heian era Japan the geishas used nightingale dung to remove their heavy make-up. Ironically, nightingale dung, while undoubtedly repulsive, does in fact contain a chemical called guanine, which is quite an effective cleanser, and has a chemical structure that gives the skin a pearlescent look.

While modern people are generally safer than our predecessors when it comes to cosmetics, dodgy ingredients still appear from time to time while others, such as phthalates, are the subjects of heated debate in terms of safety. While thankfully we no longer have to clean our skins with bird dung or style our hair with lard as many 18th century Europeans did (apparently it attracted rats on a regular basis), there are still safety and ethical issues surrounding our use of cosmetics that deserve consideration.