The notion that many popular products were dangerous and deadly in the past is hardly a new one — anyone who has spent five minutes watching history shows knows that the Elizabethans favored lead-based cosmetics and that the Victorians used arsenic for pretty much everything short of seasoning their chicken. However, what's often neglected in these historical accounts is how often these dangerous products were specifically marketed to women, typically as beauty or health aides — and how pronounced this problem became in the 20th century. Though we often think of dangerous health and beauty aides as a problem of the past, it's actually an alarmingly modern problem.
In fact, it's an issue we continue to grapple with today. From colonics to vaginal steaming, many widely espoused modern trends for women have obvious and documented health drawbacks — yet this doesn't stop them from popping up again and again, marketed as new ways for women to look or feel better.
But this is still an improvement on a lot of what happened over the past 100 years. While the 20th century brought new regulations on the ingredients in products and how they were tested, it didn't necessarily make things less dangerous for quite a long time, as we're about to discover. As the modern world has introduced and developed new categories of work and products for women, toxic risks posed to women by "health products" have changed, too.
Douches With Inflammatory Chemicals
If you thought "health" products that cause burns were a thing of the ancient past, you'd be dead wrong. The phenomenon of douching is one that almost all medical professionals have critiqued as unnecessary and problematic for natural vaginal flora, but in the early 20th century, the practice was marketed heavily toward women as both a marital aid (men, it was insinuated, wouldn't sleep with wives who didn't douche regularly because of "feminine odor") and, as Mother Jones pointed out in 2012, as a form of birth control.
Not only was douching ineffective as a birth control method, it was also dangerous; before 1953, Lysol, the most popular of the douches on the market, contained a compound that could lead to severe burns or death. While modern douches won't do that, they certainly aren't doing anything particularly beneficial.
The particular marketing of pain relief to women since the 19th century has encompassed many of the developments in chemistry and sedatives. For childbirth, "nervous complaints," hysteria, and period pain, women were offered laudanum (a combination of opium and alcohol) at the beginning of the 1800s, and then became the target market for a new kind of drug: barbiturates.
Veronal, the most famous of barbiturates, was available from 1903 onward and was taken by luminaries like Virginia Woolf; it was meant to act as a sleep aid and to soothe "troubled nerves," which was almost exclusively seen as a female complaint. It was, however, addictive.
Interestingly, as the century progressed, pharmaceuticals for help with mental health became more gender-neutral in their marketing. The story of Valium being called "Mother's Little Helper," Time points out, largely comes from the Rolling Stones song of the same name from 1966; in reality, the pharmaceuticals companies marketed it to both genders.
The tobacco industry in the early 20th century wasn't taking any chances. When it was noted that, among women, cigarettes were seen as rather uncouth and the practice of smoking them as indicative of low class or questionable morals, Lucky Strike came up with the idea of marketing their product directly to women, specifically as a diet aid that would help repress appetite. The ensuing onslaught of glamorous ads and depictions of cigarettes in Hollywood films, held aloft by svelte stars, cemented smoking as an elegant pastime.
That wasn't the only way in which cigarettes were marketed to women, either; they were also targeted at suffragettes. No, really. In a now-famous episode on Easter Sunday in 1929, a (male) PR executive set up a collection of bright young things smoking in the Easter Parade in New York. The reason? He claimed these cigarettes were "torches of freedom," meant to show that women were throwing off the shackles of sexist disapproval and could smoke in public just as men could. The result was a triumph — not for feminism, but for marketing.
Lead Nipple Shields
One of the most distressing ideas ever marketed to women, nipple shields made of lead were widely used before the 1930s. Shielding the nipples during breastfeeding was meant to prevent cracked or irritated nipples, and by the early 20th century people were well aware that lead in large quantities was a bad idea. But, as the College of Physicians explains,
Manufacturers claimed that the flexible shields would not only protect against chafing, but milk inside the shields would combine with the lead to form "lactate of lead," which would help to heal the nipples. Though the shields were allegedly "in no way likely to be injurious to the infant," mothers were supposed to wipe their breasts thoroughly before nursing to remove the lead residue.
Tragically, the results were injurious or fatal not to the mothers, but to the children. By the 1930s, it was recognized that the idea was horrendous and customs officials started destroying them.
Blinding Eyelash Dye
The arrival of Lash Lure on the American beauty scene in the 1930s was giant for two reasons. One was its popularity: It was an eyelash dye that claimed to be able to darken eyelashes beautifully, and it was widely used. The other was that it was so problematic that it brought about changes in the entire way that the United States marketed and regulated its products.
Lash Lure, it turned out, used an aniline dye derived from coal tar that had, in one case, rendered a woman totally blind. The product is dangerous because it sparks potent allergic reactions in some people, and the publicity surrounding the case in 1933 was so formidable that it contributed to the FDA's 1938 amendment to its 1908 Food & Drug Act. It became the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, one of the foundations of modern regulations on products in the marketplace and their safety.
Toxic Whitening Creams
What started in the 17th century with lead-based pigmentations has lasted into the 21st, with different — but still dangerous — formulations. In the 19th century, whitening concoctions like "Laird's Bloom of Youth" included everything from carbolic acid to mercury. But these days, even though they are no longer likely to contain carbolic acid as an ingredient, the creams are still considered dangerous — the toxicity of whiteness-inducing creams has caused what some officials call it a potential "public health crisis" across Asia and various African nations, where they're extremely popular, with men as well as women. Vice reported in 2015 that the Ivory Coast had in fact banned any creams containing over 2 percent hydroquinone, any mercury at all, or various other toxic ingredients. Some 10 percent of skin bleaching creams tested by a chemist in 2010 contained enough mercury to cause severe kidney damage over time.
And these creams do more than just engage with issues of potential sexism in their marketing; CNN reported in 2016 on a Thai skin whitening cream ad that included the phrase "Just being white, you will win."
So though we've learned a lot and come very far, the age of toxic marketing to women is by no means over.