Suffering for beauty has ancient roots
killer cosmetics.Lead eyeliner to mercury makeup,
Kim Carney /
By Diane Mapes
updated 4:25 p.m. ET Jan. 11, 2008
Lead in your lipstick? Mercury in your mascara? Recent headlines about harmful ingredients hiding in beauty products are enough to make even the vainest among us want to go back to the good old days of rubbing strawberries on our lips to make them red.
But women (and men) have plastered a lot more than berry juice onto their skin in the never-ending quest to look hot (or extremely pallid, as was usually the case back in the day). Some beauty products of yesteryear contained high concentrations of lead, mercury, arsenic, even radiation, thanks to ignorance, indifference and narcissism.
For as long as humans have admired themselves in magazines, mirrors and murky pools of water, they’ve also had to contend with the ugly side of beauty.
Ancient Egyptians may have been the first to plaster on killer cosmetics. Their exaggerated eye makeup (which trumped even the late Tammy Faye) was made of malachite (a green ore of copper), galena (lead sulfide), and, most famously, kohl, a paste made of soot, fatty matter and metal (usually lead, antimony, manganese or copper).
What, aside from chronic pink eye, would this mean for the average Egyptian?
“The exposure would eventually lead to irritability, insomnia and mental decrease,” says Dr. Joel Schlessinger, a dermatologist in Omaha, Neb. “The ocular skin is most likely to absorb materials due to its thin, nearly transparent qualities. Couple this with the mucous membranes being a hop, skip and a jump away from the area where cosmetics are applied and you have a potentially serious problem.”
Men and women in ancient Greece took things a step further by slathering lead not just around their eyes, but all over their face. Their white lead face cream, according to a 2001 article in the journal Clinics in Dermatology, was designed to “clear complexions of blemishes and to improve the color and texture of the skin” and was such a big hit that lead-based face masks soon became all the rage.
Despite lead's health hazards, ranging from skin ruptures to madness to infertility, upper-crust Romans went on to use white lead (or cerussa, the key ingredient in those once-popular lead paints) to lighten their faces, then topped that off with a bit of red lead (or minium, currently used in the manufacture of batteries and rust-proof paint) for that “healthy” rose glow. Lead was also a major ingredient in the hair dyes of the day, either intentionally or otherwise. According to scholars, the place was lousy with lead and some have conjectured that lead-lined viaducts, cooking pots and wine vessels — and the resultant poisoning — helped bring about the fall of the empire.