A history of toxic cosmetics
Although the royal beauties of ancient times bathed in some of the grossest substances to ever fill a bathtub (warm blood, veal stock with egg yolks), it is the more common, widespread beauty practices that have had women making up to meet their maker throughout history. At times, we’ve been endangered by a lack of education or insufficient product regulation. Other times, we read the warning labels and chose to open the bottle anyway. Cosmetics have gotten more sophisticated over the centuries, but many are still considered toxic. Technology has phased out some dangerous formulas but helped invent new ones. Now makeup history is coming full circle as proponents of natural and organic formulas are back to pampering themselves with milk and honey, not imidazolidinyl and oxybenzoate.
Makeup is ancient. It most likely got its start in Egypt, where both women and men swathed their eyes in kohl. This proto-eye shadow was often made with antimony, a highly toxic element which can cause headaches and depression in small doses, or dermatitis with prolonged skin contact. Ruins of Babylon and Greece suggest that people painted their faces with naturally occurring white lead, a common practice destined to continue until the 19th century. The best smiles of the Roman empire came from scrubbing teeth with merciless pumice stones. Sometimes the most dangerous thing about ancient beauty products was obtaining them: a recipe for hair growth ointment found on a papyrus manuscript calls for the fat of a lion, hippo, crocodile, cat, and serpent mixed together. Rinse and repeat.
King Henry II’s mistress, however, had very thin hair. It was a symptom of gold poisoning, which eventually killed Diane de Poitiers, according to a study published in a British medical journal after her body was dug up and studied in France. She had sipped a solution of gold chloride and diethyl ether to prevent aging.
At least she didn’t use the Greek hair dye of yore: leeches soaked in a lead vessel full of vinegar. Another beautifying technique of this period was popular with European women. They dropped extracts of belladonna, a hallucinogenic plant, into the eyes to create that dreamy look of dilated pupils and mild delirium.
Looking fair-skinned and fragile, connoting a luxurious indoor life and femininity, respectively, was the dominant aesthetic in developed parts of the world for a long time. Even when Christianity declared makeup the mark of a loose woman, God-fearing ladies bled themselves regularly to reduce the pesky flush of good health. In the 18th century, tuberculosis was so common that historians suspect it became chic to appear afflicted. Consumed by consumption, women brightened their eyes with a splash of citrus juice and consumed iodine, chalk, or small doses of arsenic to get pale. It sounds unfathomable until you fast forward to modern times, when women continue to pay for their own cancer by spending hours in tanning beds.
Of course, faking pallor externally was always an option, though hardly less dangerous. Lead, sulphur, and mercury (prescribed for blemishes) graced the skin. In late 18th century Italy, a woman called Signora Toffana formulated and sold a lead-and-arsenic face powder to wealthy socialites. She was executed after an estimated 600 men allegedly died from the habit of kissing their wives’ poison-dusted cheeks. The gentlemen of the English Parliament were getting fed up with artificial beautifiers, too. In 1770, a bill passed that said a woman using cosmetics could be penalized for witchcraft and her husband was free to nullify the marriage upon finding out his bride was not a natural beauty. This is either male chauvinism or just a good public health policy.
The 1800s brought some women reprieve from toxic makeup in the name of Victorian purity. Living in a culture that considered rosy faces beautiful but a pot of rouge scandalous, girls had to strategically bite their lips and pinch their cheeks before greeting a handsome suitor.
Get subtle color sans self harm with this sheer lipstick meant to mimic the look of lemon-scrubbed lips:
Lipstick Queen Medieval lipstick, $20. Seriously, harlots, it’s good stuff.
Those who did use makeup back then imported it from France, which was producing “natural, light” cosmetics to suit the style. An 1888 newspaper article warned women of using American makeup, which was more likely to contain bismuth, a substance the writer claimed would cause insanity similar to that of lead-poisoning. The story also advised ladies to remove their makeup with Vaseline as not to ruin their complexions like the actress Lillian Russell, who was reportedly lazy and slept in her stage makeup. This beauty tip still holds true, although few modern women would also add a mask made of raw beef to their evening skin care routines.
Fortunately, the 20th century brought some reforms to the cosmetic industry. Safety became one more selling point that advertisers could use to lure women. The 1920s flappers rebelled against standards of beauty (tan skin was finally fashionable, though still a sign of the wealthy who now spent their leisure time outdoors). Lead poisoning waned, but chemists were busy cooking up parabens, a class of preservatives that are still widely used despite evidence that they can cause cancer. Phthalates, which studies have linked to birth defects, obesity, and autism, were also making their debut as a fragrance stabilizer. In 1921, Chanel No. 5 was the first perfume made with phthalates and synthetics. They were instant classics.
The early 30s brought in some killer looks. Consumers could pick up a skin cream called Koremlu that contained a rodent poison, thallium acetate. The lotion was pulled from department stores once it was obvious enough that it was causing paralysis, abdominal pain, and blindness. Another trendy way to go blind was Lash Lure, an eyelash colorant that claimed the vision of dozens of women. It stayed on the market a good five years after the FDA made the connection but didn’t have the regulatory authority to act on it. The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 was passed, but did little more than allow the government to classify what was a cosmetic and proceed to not regulate it.
Consumer demand for personal care products continued to increase mid-century as celebrity endorsements abounded and industry advancements, particularly in the area of petroleum, provided more variety. It was a market boom with enough preservatives to stand the test of time. By the 70s, nearly everything one could apply to her body contained synthetic fragrance. The FDA flexed its muscles in 1977, though, by banning six carcinogenic color additives commonly used in lipstick. The beauty industry felt so bad about giving women cancer that it stopped using the colors…once the existent supplies were depleted after a few more years. Similar apathy was revealed in 1986, when the National Academy of Sciences reported that many perfumes included toxins that act directly on the nervous system. Fragrance companies –and the government– shrugged it off.
While America persisted in banning products only once women started dropping like (beautiful) flies, reform took shape in Europe in the 90s. Policymakers adopted a guiding belief that cosmetics should be proven safe by manufacturers before they were sold. And in the year 2000, phthalates DBP and DEHP were banned in European Union countries. Willing to be passed up in regulatory measures but not research, U.S. scientists developed a way to test for these controversial chemicals. They were found in the body fluids of all 289 average Americans tested. Exposure is as easy as walking past an Abercrombie and Fitch, where one Californian teen led a protest last year against the phthalate-ridden cologne that the clothing store is regularly sprayed down with. Ads for the scent depicted buff, shirtless personifications of virility. The irony is that the cologne’s phthalates are shown to reduce sperm count and stunt development of the genitals in boys.
Phthalates remain in about three-quarters of our personal care products but are listed on hardly any labels, according to a lab analysis by the Environmental Working Group. If you were born in the U.S.A., your umbilical cord probably supplied you with 287 synthetic chemicals (180 of which are known to cause cancer in humans or animals) long before your first spritz of hairspray. This is the “original sin” of chemical beautification before we can decide if a golden tan is worth melanoma or a trendy keratin hair treatment is worth sitting in a cloud of formaldehyde.
Perhaps the next generation will be better off now that all-natural makeup is catching on, despite the commercial advantages of chemical preservatives.
“The longer something can stay on the shelf, the more money there is to be made,” said Shirley Pinkson, co-owner of Austin-based chemical-free cosmetics line W3LL PEOPLE. Still, the growing success of her brand shows that demand is high for those daily products that won’t help accumulate stores of toxins that could cause disease.
Stacy Malkan, author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, is also confident that the future holds safer ways to primp.
“We know a ton more than we did five years ago about what’s in our cosmetics,” Malkan said, referencing online databases full of ingredient lists that don’t get printed on bottles. Pressure from organizations like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has convinced companies, most notably the nail polish giant OPI, to bring their safer European formulas stateside.
“I see this as a women’s movement,” Malkan said. “We make 85 percent of consumer product purchases. We have the power to decide which companies we allow into our homes.”
Of course, it is up to each woman to decide what price she will pay for beauty. But in the year 2011, at least we can say the information and alternatives make it easier for us all to choose wisely.
Do-gooders can join the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
Pale chicks can read my guide to fake baking: Snow White and the 7 Tanning Suggestions