Drop Dead Gorgeous

February 13, 2021 9:10 AM | Sarah Halter (Administrator)

by Haley Brinker

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, it seems fitting to offer a beauty routine fit for royalty. There is the slight issue that the products in this post may result in death, but beauty is pain, right? While we at the Indiana Medical History Museum highly recommend not following this regimen (the whole death thing), the steps involved were used by numerous ladies throughout history to lure in their prince charming. Of course, they perhaps weren’t able to stay with them as long due to the slow poisoning to which they were subjecting themselves. But, like they say, love never truly dies.

Every beauty guru around knows that a good face of makeup starts with taking exquisite care of one’s skin. It is the foundation on which we place the foundation. Historical women were spoiled for poisonous choice for which debilitating chemical they would use to create the deathly pale complexion that was trendy at the time [1]. In the 1700s, a mixture of white lead and vinegar was the go-to complexion-paler. Referred to as ceruse, this mixture gave users the ghostly pallor they so desired, while simultaneously hiding any unsightly smallpox scars they wished to hide [1]. One of the most famous of these products was Empress Josephine Face Bleach, and it contained everything a girl could want in terms of chemicals that would eat away their skin, such as zinc oxide, lead carbonate, and mercuric chloride [2]. Of course, creams can be so cumbersome to carry on the go. What about a product that one could just ingest in the morning and have a clear complexion all day? Nineteenth century ladies would simply take arsenic wafers. Yes, the aptly named wafers made of literal arsenic were very popular and would supposedly help a woman achieve a better complexion [3]. Could a lady have serious health problems or even die after prolonged use of such products? Absolutely. Would they look deathly pale up until their expiration, thus making them the belle of the proverbial ball? You know it!

“But wait,” you say, “what if I want a product that can do it all, while also slowly killing me?” Look no further than the beautiful lady herself, Belladonna! What can’t this highly poisonous and herbaceous photo-synthesizer do? This deadly multitasker was used as a face wash to “take off pimples and other excrescences from the skin” or used to “whiten the complexion” in order to achieve the forementioned deathly pale look [4]. Miss Bella doesn’t stop there, either. Those red berries? They were sometimes crushed to form blush and redden the cheeks [4]. After applying all of that deadly nightshade, a particularly daring lady might want to do something to freshen up those eyes. Not to worry, a few drops of belladonna into the eye will cause them to dilate [1], which was, apparently, something people used to be into. Who knew?

Of course, no look is complete without a kissable pout. To keep with the theme of beauty to die for, do it like the ancient Egyptians with a little bromine mannite-based lip color!  What’s bromine mannite, you ask? Bromine mannite is a halogen compound with an alcohol sugar [5]. I know when I’m stalking the aisles at Sephora, I’m constantly complaining about the lack of halogen-based beauty products. If it can light up a room, why can’t it light up my face? Apparently, bromine mannite created a lovely “red-brown” shade that could make even Mark Antony swoon. He might have just fainted, though, as this lipstick would not only have poisoned the wearer, but anyone they might have kissed, too [6].

There you have it, folks! This beauty routine is to die for, and I mean that literally. These products are highly toxic and could cause death. A lot of ladies and gentlemen dream of looking gorgeous at parties, but these products will have their users looking absolutely breathtaking at their wake.

[1] Wischhover, Cheryl. “The Most Dangerous Beauty through the Ages,” December 17, 2013. https://www.thecut.com/2013/12/most-dangerous-beauty-through-the-ages.html.

[2] Rance, Caroline. “Empress Josephine Face Bleach.” The Quack Doctor, October 9, 2018. http://thequackdoctor.com/index.php/empress-josephine-face-bleach/.

[3] Peiss, Kathy Lee. Hope in a Jar: the Making of America's Beauty Culture. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

[4] Forbes, Thomas R. “Why Is It Called ‘Beautiful Lady’? A Note on Belladonna.” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 53, no. 4 (May 1977): 403–6.

[5] Rattley, Matt. “Ambiguous Bromine.” Nature Chemistry 4 (June 2012): 512.

[6] Freeman, Shanna. “How Lipstick Works.” HowStuffWorks, March 9, 2009. https://health.howstuffworks.com/skin-care/beauty/skin-and-makeup/lipstick5.htm.

PHOTO: "Arsenic Complexion Wafers 1896" by Nesster is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit  https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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