Article & Research by Science Journalist, Violeta Camarasa
Do we have to suffer for vanity’s sake? Since time immemorial humans have used a host of products to beautify the skin. Many of these historical ingredients were toxic and some even lethal. Cosmetics have an ugly side that shows how humans in their vanity are capable of suffering — a lot.
The beautiful Cleopatra eyes that we see in the movies are often achieved with galena (lead sulfide), a neurotoxic chemical. In the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, kohl, a paste made with ground galena, has been used for centuries as mascara. Galena is just one example of the long history of the use of lead in cosmetics.
Continued exposure of the skin of the eyes (more absorbent due to its thinness and transparency) to ground galena has produced (and continues to produce) saturnism (lead poisoning).
The effects, now well documented, range from anaemia to cancer and neurological diseases, and in extreme cases, death. If the patient recovers, the consequences can be as severe as mental retardation or blindness.
Mercury-based facial powders, popular since time immemorial, can causes cracked skin and even madness or infertility. They were used by the ancient Egyptians and by the Romans, who complemented the powder with a touch of a red lead compound that brought a “healthy” pink glow to the cheeks.
Some experts even suggest that the widespread use of mercury — a very toxic heavy metal — may have contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire from the physical and mental decline of their ruling classes.
And a touch of arsenic…
In Elizabethan England and ensuing centuries, ladies wore arsenic-based face powder to whiten the face. However, since makeup was typical of prostitutes, a discreet and elegant solution was a homemade vinegar-based application containing chalk and arsenic. Yes, arsenic, the legendary poison used by royalty to settle inheritances.
In the early twentieth century, despite knowing the dangers of arsenic, products as radical as arsenic pills were sold by some doctors. The resulting anaemic pallor was assured — while other vital organs deteriorated due to lack of oxygen.
Horror in industrial quantities
Sold also in the early twentieth century were rubber masks coated with “curative agents” to treat freckles, liver spots or other “imperfections” of the skin. ¿Cucumber extract? Nonsense: nothing like a bit of acid to perfect the skin!
Users (both men and women) participated in this vicious circle of using horrific cosmetics based on lead, mercury, arsenic and other hazardous elements. After a while using these products, which literally ate into the flesh, all kinds of rashes and scarring resulted. And the only solution was to use more of the same or worse, thereby only aggravating matters.
In most cases the use of toxic cosmetics was not accidental. The consumer boom and extraordinary development of advertising in the Roaring Twenties in the USA — birthplace of the modern cosmetics industry — led to the development of more or less toxic products and ingredients that were not controlled by any authority.
In her book American Chamber of Horrors, published in 1936, Ruth DeForest Lamb, head of education for the US Food and Drug Administration, called for regulation of the industry in view of frequent harmful outcomes resulting from the toxicity of certain ingredients.
This author described, in crude detail, some of the scandals of the era, such as the 1933 case of Lash Lure mascara, containing coal tar, which burned a woman’s eyes, or the depilatory cream Koremlu, containing thallium acetate (also used as rat poison) that caused baldness, pain and paralysis.
Who is in control?
Today, many regulations and controls, especially in the Western world, ensure that every cosmetic ingredient is exhaustively analysed for acceptable toxicity levels. But we should never lower our guard. If an inexpensive ingredient has a powerful positive effect on the skin, it will logically attract the attention of the cosmetics industry. What matters is for consumers to have guarantee of no adverse effects for our health.
And that very much depends on where we live. While the European Union has banned the use of more than 1,000 ingredients in cosmetics, the US Food and Drug Administration has banned just a few dozen, while regulations vary greatly in other parts of the world.
In 2004, the American Environmental Working Group (EWG) created a highly recommendable resource, called Skin Deep, a database of toxicological information on some 64,000 products, all investigated by EWG’s own scientists.