Updated: May 7, 2020
Beauty is pain. We know this. We live in a world where some, if not most of us (-beauty junkies) attend to regular, uncomfortable hair removal and excruciating waxing sessions, eye-watering facial injections and consume supplements and use skincare with little knowledge of what it is actually doing for us. The beauty and skincare industry has come a lonnnnng way in the last few thousand years, and this philosophy got me thinking. What were the deadliest beauty treatments, that our ancestors had to endure, for us to know what we do, today? Scroll down to find 13 of the strangest beauty treatments in history.
The Ancient Egyptians are well-known for their use heavy of eyeliner, Cleopatra especially. The Egyptians would use lead in kohl cosmetics to accentuate the eyes. It was also believed that by using lead on the skin, you would be preventing the risk of illness and protecting your skin from the sun.
Pale skin was high in demand for thousands of years, particularly amongst the higher class. The Roman Empire used lead as a bleaching agent, in foundation and rouge to create this sought-after appearance.
Lead was still used in the 18th century for this same reason, but many health problems occurred as a result.
THE RISK• Despite the instant bleaching-effect,extended use of lead would cause the skin to blacken. Tooth erosion was common as it would break down the enamel on the teeth, eyes would become swollen and inflamed. With increased use, lead caused multiple health problems like high blood pressure, memory loss, miscarriage, paralysis and in severe cases, death.
Madame Marie and Pierre Curie’s scientific discovery of radium in 1898, caused a great deal of excitement, particularly in the beauty and healthcare industry. Quite quickly, radium was used in pills and injections to treat a wide range of medical problems from hair loss and impotence to blood pressure, gout and sciatica. Believed to ‘revitalise’ the human body, radioactive material was added to a lot of household products; wool for babies, chocolate, soda water, condoms, boot polish, cigarettes, cleaning polish and fertilisers.
And it didn’t stop there. In 1918 an advert was released by Radior cosmetics and it was explained in their adverts that ‘an ever-flowing fountain of youth and beauty has at last been found in the energy rays of radium.’ The popular range was sold in the 585 stores of Boots, and even high-end UK department stores like Harrods and Selfridges.
Soon after, copycat brands like Tho-Radia and Artes followed suit. This idea that radioactive beauty products gave astounding results, spread very quickly and by the 1920s-1930s, it was in a lot of mainstream cosmetic products.
Kemolite mud treatments (yes, radioactive mud) was advertised as a volcanic clay mud treatment, promised to revitalise and smooth the skin. The exclusive treatment was carried in many beauty salons.
Kremolite ‘volcanic’ mud treatments via wikimedia
In 1925, the New York Times released an article headlined ‘New Radium Disease Found: Killed 5.” Pushy advertising continued despite the evidence, and it had taken until 1938 to outlaw radium in products.
THE RISK• Excessive exposure to radium caused internal bleeding, seizures, cancer,anaemia, vomiting and eventually, death.
Atropa Belladonna, or more commonly known as Deadly Nightshade is a perennial herbaceous plant, which includes tomatoes, potatoes and egg plant. In the Middle ages, the plant extract was used as anaesthetic in surgery and for poison in the tip of an arrow.
Up until the 20th Century, it was used in Italy to dilate the pupils in order to create the illusion of bigger, doll-like eyes. Belladonna derives from the Italian world ‘beautiful woman’ but caused quite the opposite effect with long-term use.
THE RISK• Deadly Nightshade induced blindness in many cases, heart failure, coma and death.
Arsenic was the most popular beauty pill of the 1800s. Because arsenic kills the red blood cells in the body, it would create a deathly-pale and more even-looking complexion. Women would often build up to daily use of arsenic, but when they stopped, tissue degradation would happen, causing an inevitable dependence on the product.
At the time, Dr Mackenzie’s Harmless Arsenic Complexion wafers were one of the most popular beauty products on the market.
Despite the risk, it’s use was popular until the 20s, when many links were being made between arsenic and thousands of unexplained deaths.
THE RISK• Expect vomiting, internal bleeding, convulsing, blindness, hair loss and death.
In ancient Rome, high-society women would have slaves called Cosmetae. Imagine these people as modern-day make-up artists; they were given ingredients to formulate the cosmetics, and use their own spit to dissolve them. The slaves would then apply it to their owner’s face several times a day due to the weather conditions and poor formulation – eww.
THE RISK• Serious risk of disease.
The foot binding tradition is thought to have begun around the 10th century, in China. It possibly originated from upper class court dancers and then quite quickly spread amongst the elite. The process involved folding the toes under and binding them tightly with a cloth – a practice that began at around 3-4 years of age.
The purpose of this was to create the appearance of doll-like feet, a feature that was considered highly attractive in Chinese culture – it was a status symbol, referred to as ‘lotus feet.’ It would force girls and women to take smaller steps in order to balance and move around, to create an air of gracefulness. The most desirable bride would have a 3-inch foot, a respectable woman around 4 inches, and anyone with a foot that measured 5 inches or longer, had much smaller chances of marriage.
By the 19th century, 40-50% of Chinese women had bound feet. Bizarrely, this ancient tradition was not banned until China’s Communist revolution in 1949 and there are still women alive today with bound feet.
THE RISK• Health complications included pelvic pain and body disfigurement. Toenails would continue to grow, often into the skin, leading to infection. Women with bound feet were most likely to fall, not able to squat or bend down easily and less likely to get up from a sitting position without assistance.
Red lips were as much of a trend in the Victorian Era as they are today. Lipstick was often composed of carmine, made from crushed bodies of cochineal insects. Poisonous ammonia would then be mixed with these crushed bugs and boiled.
THE RISK• Ammonia is an irritant and highly corrosive – excessive exposure to this chemical led to rapid skin and eye irritation, respiratory distress and failure, skin burns and eye damage.
Cinnabor, a mercury sulfide compound, was used for pigment in make-up, producing a deep colour of rouge. Also known as Vermillion pigment, this powdered mineral is considered highly toxic. When applied to the skin, it is absorbed into the blood stream, causing peeling, irritated skin and irreversible discolouration.
THE RISK• ‘Mad-hatters disease’ was a common symptom because of the damage it causes to the neurological system, loss of hair, teeth and nails, kidney failure, birth defects and sometimes, death.
Corsets were popularised first in the 16th century for one reason: to improve a woman’s bust shape. By the Victorian era, corset-making had advanced with the availability of new materials and the invention of the sewing machine. Most chased after the hourglass figure and with the help of heavy fabrics, lacing and ‘tight-fitting’, upper-class women could finally create this look. Young women were also given the undergarment to wear, in a bid to improve their posture.
Following the shortages of first and second world war, women everywhere were urged to stop buying corsets to free up the metal for war materials. By the late 1960s, the participants in the Miss America Protest labelled corsets and girdles as nothing but ‘instruments of female torture.’
Corset-wearing caused permanent disability for many, but some still follow this tradition today as a result of fetish-fashion and celebrity culture. Sometimes we call it a waist trainer. In the last couple of years, the fashion world has seen an influx corset-style belts, tops and dresses, but without the same, silly risk of a 17th century undergarment.
THE RISK• Asphyxiation due to the inability to breath properly, was common. Infertility and miscarriages happened due to organ and spine realignment.
TUMOUR BREAST AUGMENTATION
The first documented breast augmentation was in 1895 in Germany, carried out by Vincenz Czerny when the a patient had to have a tumour removed from her left breast. During the operation Czerny found an apple-sized tumour in her lower back, removed it, and placed it into the empty space of her chest.
The 20th century saw a flood of mimicking operations, where doctors would experiment will all kind of skin tissue fillers during the surgeries, including parrafin, glass balls, ivory and wall, sponges and ox cartilage.
THE RISK• These operations caused serious infections, skin necrosis, liver problems, granuloma and death.
X-RAY HAIR REMOVAL
The discovering of X-ray in 1895 encouraged a flourish of gruesome and haunting experimentation’s. The x-ray hair removal discovered happened a year later when X-ray technicians discovered they were losing all their hair. Soon after, Dr Albert C Geyser invented the Tricho System – what seemed to be the world’s most popular X-ray hair removal machine.
Geyser glamourized this technology as harmless and encouraged women to spend 4 minutes in a box over 10-20 treatments to get rid of their hair, and also to treat eczema and acne. It was considered a supreme invention until about 1970, when 1/3 of all radiation-induced cancer in women was traced to this particular treatment. Secret hair removal clinics were everywhere for years after, despite the ban – it’s hard not to compare this to the unlicensed practitioners carrying out filler treatments today.
THE RISK• Exposure to x-ray removal caused wrinkling, skin discolorations, carcinoma, ulcerations and cancer.
High hair was a widely-spread fashion in the 1700s. Women would use wooden and iron frames, and leather horsehair pads to create a framework for their avantgarde dos’. Lard was used to hold in it all in place and lead would be added to set it.
THE RISK• Hair was rarely washed which caused regular bouts of louse, and even mice infestation.
The Dundee Courier reported on the 6th July 1899, that eyelash and eyebrow transplantation was the ‘latest thing.’ The procedure involved:
An ordinary fine needle is threaded with a long hair, generally taken from the head of the person to be operated upon. The lower border of the eyelid is then thoroughly cleaned, and in order that the process may be as painless as possible rubbed with a solution of cocaine. The operator then by a few skilful touches runs his needle through the extreme edges of the eyelid between the epidermis and the lower border of the cartilage of the tragus. The needle passes in and out along the edge of the lid leaving its hair thread in loops of carefully graduated length.
THE RISK• High risk of blindness, infection and sometimes death.
If you have any gruesome beauty treatments to add to the list, comment below. If you liked this article, discover the Beauty Trends of the Victorian Era here.