The pursuit of beauty through the centuries has been ongoing and, more times than not, treacherous.
The use of make-up was first recorded over 5,000 years ago and not by women. Yup, you read that right – men were the ones who started the cosmetic trend with ground gemstones sparkling at their lips and on their faces. I may or may not have thanks to give them based on how I feel/look on a particular day.
We all know the Egyptians used kohl to elongate their eyes in an exaggerated fashion and while the kohl itself was not toxic, one of the components they used to preserve it contained lead. This not only caused eye infections, but it could also lead to sickness and madness.
The Egyptians were not alone in their use of lead-based products. Romans achieved red lips with a chemical referred to as minium which contains lead. Grecians achieved milky white skin with lead based face creams and bleaches.
Perhaps the most horrifying of all were the cosmetics made during 16th century. In the Elizabethan court, death white skin was all the rage. Upper class women had nary a freckle gracing their immaculate faces – at least while they were wearing their make-up that is. Because when the make-up came off, so too did some of their skin.
The white, mask-like paste the women of the Elizabethan court put on their faces was made of something called Venetian Ceruse which was a toxic, acidic mix of lead and vinegar. It was said of make-up then that when you started wearing it, you could never stop. The more of the paste you put on, the more your skin would deteriorate underneath, meaning the more make-up paste you would need to wear, etc.
From the 15th century on, women were so obsessed with keeping their faces fair, they bleached their skin, applied lipstick and even swept pink shadows across their eyelids to make their skin appear paler by comparison – all with lead.
What does lead do, you ask. It causes lesions to break out on the skin. Small pimples at first that can peel away into gaping wounds depending on the level of exposure. Lead seeps into the skin and enters the body causing everything from cancer and madness to infertility and even death. A woman named Maria Gunning, a countess famed for her beauty, was known to have died in 1740 from cosmetic poisoning at the young age of 27.
Cosmetic experimentation only continued to grow wilder as time went on until the late 1800’s/early 1900’s when people were diagnosed with Lead Palsy due to all the lead exposure. The FDA officially became involved in the creation of cosmetics in 1938 after something called Lash Lure (a permanent mascara) caused blindness in fifteen women and killed one.
Even cosmetics that did not contain lead weren’t always something appealing to put on your body. I believe every historical novel reader/writer has heard of carmine balm the lips and cheeks a flattering shade of red. Well, carmine comes from the cochineal insect. The body is boiled in ammonia or sodium carbonate and then the color is extracted from its body and eggs. And was then applied to a fine lady’s lips. Mmm…kissable. Even more kissable, in Japan Geisha who dye their teeth black to signify the end of their apprenticeship sometimes used bird droppings.
As if all of this weren’t shocking enough, would you believe lead and mercury are still used in cosmetics today? They are. Lipstick contains lead, mascara contains mercury and even antibacterial contains something called triclosan which alters hormone levels and can actually impair child development and cause cancer. Pretty horrifying. FDA continues their regulation on cosmetics, but cannot control levels in foreign created make-up and even still allow traces of lead and mercury to stay on the market.
As awful as it is of me to say, while I may not be the next Maria Gunning, I probably won’t give up my mascara either. How about you?