The Deadly Beauty Regime: Historical Practices of Risky Cosmetics


From the mountainous region of Styria, Austria, to the high society salons in Mayfair, London, the quest for beauty has taken humans on a dangerous journey.

This journey, spanning centuries, has been marked by the use of deadly substances such as arsenic, radium, mercury, cantharidin, petroleum, and X-rays as cosmetics and remedies.

Arsenic: The Austrians’ Potion of Beauty

In the mid-19th century, Styrians in southeast Austria were known for their unusual practice of consuming arsenic trioxide, also known as ‘white arsenic’.

Arsenic was not just a feared poison but was used as a medicine and a beautifying agent.

The Styrians reported increased stamina and enhanced complexion, attributing their rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes to arsenic consumption.

Arsenic’s popularity soared as it offered short-term benefits, including a temporary flush to the cheeks due to capillary dilation.

The late 19th-century cosmetic market saw arsenic-brd products like ‘Dr James P Campbell’s Safe Arsenic Complexion Wafers’ and arsenic-laced soaps that stayed in demand well into the 1930s.

Radium: The Radiant Element of Beauty

Around 1911, Helen Cavendish in Mayfair, London, introduced a line of beauty products utilizing radium, a radioactive element discovered by the Curies.

This line, known as Caradium, contained products like shampoos and face creams made with radium water and herbs.

The theory of mild radium therapy suggested that exposure to small doses of radium triggered a chain of psychological reactions, improving joint movements and boosting the immune system. 

Despite the known dangers of radium, these products reportedly caused minimal harm due to the minuscule amounts used.

Mercury: The Quicksilver Cure

Dating back to the 1300s, mercury or ‘quicksilver’ was used to treat skin issues like psoriasis and leprosy. In the 17th century, mercury was part of the recipe “to procure Beauty” published in Hannah Woolley’s book.

The effects of mercury, however, were detrimental. Its accumulation in the body resulted in tissue damage, stomach ulcers, loosening of teeth, and damage to the nervous system. 

Mercury was finally struck off the British Pharmacopoeia, a register of approved remedies, in the 1950s.

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Not exactly about books and writing, but potentially of interest to those who write historical fiction.