The Poison Behind the Beauty

John Singer Sargeant’s painting Madame X
John Singer Sargeant’s painting Madame X

Throughout history, beauty standards have undergone multiple (sometimes rather drastic) changes, from the “voluptuous” female ideal of the European Renaissance period that exalted women being overweight, to the horrifyingly termed “heroin chic” of the ‘90s that glorified a skeletally thin figure.

Through the ages, women have been constantly trying to alter their bodies to fit the beauty standards of their time. While this may stand out as unhealthy, an equally problematic element of beauty often lurked unnoticed – makeup.

Makeup itself was not so much the problem as what was in it. For hundreds of years, cosmetics have been understood as an elementary accessory to beauty. But throughout history, women have been paying a very high price for said beauty – sometimes even with their lives.

Victorian England was particularly saturated with highly toxic substances that pervaded everyday items, including hats, clothes and children’s toys. Makeup was no exception. This period favoured an aptly named ‘deathly pallor’ in women, characterised by corpse-like paleness, watery eyes, and flushed cheeks. Cosmetics designed to manufacture this appearance were full of lead, mercury and arsenic, all highly poisonous in nature, which caused a garden variety of side effects, from hair loss, rotting teeth, irreversible damage to internal organs and the nervous system, and even death. All of these products were marketed as ‘perfectly safe’, which led to generations of women unwittingly poisoning themselves in pursuit of a deathly appearance, completely ignorant of the fact that they were pushing themselves closer and closer to actual death in the process.

An 1898 advertisement for Dr. Campbell’s Safe Arsenic Complexion Wafers.
An 1898 advertisement for Dr. Campbell’s Safe Arsenic Complexion Wafers.

Even well into the 20th century, substances such as opium, thallium, and even radioactive radium were common in cosmetics – all extremely dangerous and yet marketed as highly beneficial and perfectly safe. It would be many decades before cosmetic companies finally conceded to the sheer damage inflicted by such substances on their consumers.

In current times, the poisonous beauty products of the past might seem obvious, but we are far from perfect. Even today, most lipsticks, which tend to be ingested in small amounts by nature of where they are applied on our face, contain lead – albeit in ‘safe’ quantities (does this claim sound familiar?). Skin lightening creams like Fair & Lovely – now renamed Glow & Lovely – have faced multiple accusations of containing mercury, leading them to be banned in some countries of the world (as of January this year). Scarier still, the world of cosmetics has now become invasive, injecting a range of substances, from silicone implants to Botulinum toxin (botox) that causes paralysis of the facial nerves.

As long as unrealistic beauty standards exist, attempting to homogenise the concept of beauty, and providing a standard list of requirements that a woman needs to fulfil to be termed ‘beautiful’, cosmetic brands will continue to convince women to subject themselves to potential harm in order to achieve these standards.

On a more optimistic note, people are now slowly moving towards a newer standard of beauty that accepts different types of features and is more inclusive. Women like Jameela Jamil are championing causes that empower other women and lift the pressure of conformity to a single standard off their shoulders. Now, the conversation around makeup is shifting from being an ‘essential’ accessory of beauty, to a tool of self-expression that we use creatively, without absolute dependency. After many years of toxic cosmetics, we can begin to hope that the poison behind the beauty (both literally and figuratively) will steadily fade away.

Work Cited

Al-Saleh I, El-Doush I, Shinwari N, Al-Baradei R, Khogali F, Al-Amodi M. Does low mercury containing skin-lightening cream (fair & lovely) affect the kidney, liver, and brain of female mice?. Cutan Ocul Toxicol. 2005;24(1):11-29. doi:10.1081/CUS-200046179. <  > as seen on July 8th, 2020.

Connell, Alle. “The 7 most deadly beauty trends of all time”. Revelist. March 24th, 2016. Web.< > as seen on July 8th, 2020.

Little, Becky. “Arsenic Pills and Lead Foundation: The History of Toxic Makeup”. National Geographic. September 22nd, 2016. Web. < > as seen on July 8th, 2020.

Smith, Michelle. “How toxic beauty has changed throughout history”. The Sydney Morning Herald. October 3rd, 2017. Web. < > as seen onKuly 8th, 2020.

Thorpe, JR. “The Deadliest Products Marketed To Women From History”. Bustle. May 18th, 2017. Web. < > as seen on July 8th, 2020.

Zarrelli, Natalie. “The Poisonous Beauty Advice Columns of Victorian England”. Atlas Obscura. December 17th, 2015. Web. < > as seen on July 8th, 2020.

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