It is an unfortunate and depressing fact that the history of women is often full of violence. However, throughout history, one less obvious type of anti-woman violence has surfaced again and again: the brutal (and often lethal) poisons and toxins that have been sold to women throughout history as beauty or health products. Why have the most ridiculously poisonous materials around often turned up in products specifically targeted towards women? Part of it is down to total lack of regulation for products aimed at all people; up until the early 20th century, America and most countries had no regulation whatsoever on the ingredients that went into products, from pharmaceuticals to cosmetics, or rigorous testing procedures to make sure they weren't poisonous.
And a lot of the most dangerous materials were found in cosmetics, which are usually directly applied to skin or vulnerable parts of the body — and which are typically aimed at female consumers.
But for those of you who may believe that cosmetics or health supplements were safer and healthier in some kind of gauzy, distant past — it's time to get some facts straight.
Toxic Eyeliner (Ancient Greece & Egypt)
Women of ancient Greece and Egypt suffered for beauty with antimony, a hugely toxic chemical — so-named, allegedly, because it often killed monks who experimented with it in the medieval period (no, really). Antimony was favored by the ancient Egyptians as a kohl, and the Greeks also used it as a cosmetic to blacken eyebrows and lashes.
Antimony used in this context, intriguingly enough, may not have been entirely poisonous. A 2010 study argued that the use of antimony and lead-based products around the eyes in an ancient civilization may have increased users' immune responses, because the eyes would produce more nitric oxide in response to higher lead levels. But antimony is still shown to carry many risks for those exposed to it, including disruptions to the skin and digestive tract, chronic breathing issues, and other ill health effects.
Lead Foundation Makeup (16th-19th Centuries)
This is the famous "lead make-up" alleged to have been used by Elizabeth I, though historians aren't in agreement that she actually used the stuff. But we do know that it was actually popular from Elizabeth I's reign to a very long time after — up until the 19th century, in fact. The product in question was known as "Venetian ceruse," the "Spirits of Saturn," or just "ceruse," and was made by dissolving white lead in vinegar to create a paint-like substance that could be applied as a mask to the face. Litharge of gold, a powder made of yellow crystalline lead oxide, was also popular in the 17th century as a face powder.
By the 18th century, the use of ceruse was hugely widespread in fashionable society and the nobility of Europe; and as with many cosmetics products of the time, it wasn't just targeted at women. Both male and female aspirants to a white, smooth complexion would put it on in great quantities and leave it on for significant periods of time. The resultant lead poisoning would be highly unpleasant — and is thought to have caused the death of at least one high-profile woman. Maria Gunning, the Countess of Coventry, died in the 18th century, at the young age of 28, from what many of her peers believed were side effects of ceruse use.
A Poison For Hair Removal (19th-early 20th Century)
In the late years of the 19th century, a brief vogue occurred for using something called thallium acetate as a hair removal method. Thallium was prescribed first as a cure for scalp ringworm — though it didn't work by killing the ringworm; rather, it made the user's hair fall out, which made the ringworm easier to treat. And for half a century, the chemical was used in a depilatory cream marketed to women for the removal of hair on the body.
The problem, as you may have guessed, is that thallium is intensely toxic and causes poisoning through contact with the skin — which is not too shocking, considering that it was widely used as a poison to kill rats, as well as a murder method in novels by numerous mystery writers, including Agatha Christie. The scandal surrounding a thallium acetate hair removal cream, Koremlu, was one of the first famous industrial class actions in American history.
By the '20s and '30s, after a series of horrific incidents (including one where a child spread thallium acetate on bread and ate it, promptly dying), thallium was widely recognized as a Bad Idea all round.
Ammonia & Opium Facial Treatments (19th Century)
One of the most instructive documents about what 19th century women were taught about cosmetics and skincare comes from a beauty column, the "Ugly Girl Papers," published in Harper's Bazaar. The recommendations contained in the column mirrored the beauty advice at the time — so we know that the day's standard beauty routine, as recommended by Ugly Girl's writer and seen in other sources, involved covering one's face with opium overnight as you slept, then rinsing it thoroughly in the morning with ammonia, before applying one's paint for the day.
Yes, that ammonia. The one that can cause serious burning on delicate tissue. Charming.
Arsenic Wafers For Skincare (19th Century)
In upper-class 19th century circles in the US and Europe, the epitome of feminine beauty was drawn from — you've guessed it! — consumptives: delicate, white-skinned, big-eyed dames who were likely to fall down in a faint at any moment. And the products used to achieve this look did more than just make you look ill; they were likely to make you ill, too! Quite ill, in fact;, the amount of poison habitually ingested by Victorian women in pursuit of this aim was likely to shuffle them off this mortal coil sharpish. (And yes, women of this era knew that they were using and ingesting toxic chemicals; they just didn't really care.)
One of the more dangerous consequences of the tubercular trend was the fad for white skin with pink cheeks, which led to a mania for skin products with heavy doses of arsenic. Arsenic itself had a vogue as a kind of health tonic ingested by both men and women, but in cosmetic use, it was most often marketed to and used by women.
Beyond arsenic-imbued soaps and creams, wafers were also marketed: Dr Rose's French Arsenic Complexion Wafers were meant to help with "surely developing a transparency and pellucid clearness of complexion, shapely contour of form, brilliant eyes, soft and smooth skin." None of these precious wafers have survived — but we can guess that, if they were ingested regularly, neither did the beauties taking them.
Arsenical Green Dresses (19th Century)
If you thought the arsenic craze ended in cosmetics, you'd be dead wrong. (Yes, literally.) According to the Victorians, one of arsenic's most glorious attributes was the fact that it could produce a richly tinted green — which meant the chemical was used widely in wallpapers and paints, so that Victorians were literally surrounded by toxic fumes. This was, of course, a threat to all. When it came to women specifically, though, there was a particular problem: the use of arsenic as a dye for green dresses.
An estimate from the time warned that the vast heavy gowns worn for receptions would contain up to "half their own weight" in arsenic, meaning that a standard dress would be imbued with 900 grains of arsenic, much of which would dust off during an active evening of dancing. The problem was enhanced because the gowns were usually made of muslin and the dyes themselves only loosely dyed, so quite a lot of it doubtless came off on the skin of the woman wearing it. Various countries banned the practice rapidly after physicians and chemists denounced the whole idea, though Britain and America were comparatively slow off the mark — probably because they were preoccupied with figuring out how to deal with a raft of dead green ladies.