Toxic Beauty at the Turn of the Century

“Eco-Friendly” products are currently one of the biggest trends in the American beauty industry. Shampoo labels boast formulas free of parabens and sulfates while luxury makeup brands pride themselves on being “cruelty-free,” or not testing their products on animals. Though research shows that consumers find these claims to be comforting, the use of such language in the beauty industry is largely unregulated in the States. Many natural or “green” ingredients have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for their efficacy, much less for their general safety as cosmetic and hygienic agents. Recent trends in green beauty recall the American beauty industry’s early days before the creation of the FDA when nearly all cosmetic ingredients were unregulated. For my post on “Beauty over the Decades” I’d like to stroll through a few now-shunned ingredients that were popularly used in cosmetics at the dawn of the twentieth century. Also, it seems a little fishy to me that the history of cosmetics, which are for the most part marketed to women exclusively, is so closely tied to the history of poison. What does that say about how we as a society have historically valued women’s health?


Lead has been used in cosmetics since the dawn of time. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, American women used lead to achieve a more fair complexion and to remove any unwanted blemishes or scaring from the face. It seems hard to believe that products containing lead really enhanced anyone’s beauty routine, since some of lead exposure’s immediate side effects include graying of the hair and dry skin. In 2009 the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics reported that 61 percent of 33 name brand lipsticks contain lead.

Many popular lipsticks on the market today contain lead.


Once word started to spread about lead’s poisonous properties, the hunt was on for a new cosmetic agent that could smooth complexions and erase wrinkles. One popular product marketed at the turn of the century was Dr. McKenzie’s Improved Harmless Arsenic Complexion Wafers, which gave users an innocent pallor by destroying their red blood cells. Long before the days of Pinterest, women concocted DIY at-home beauty treatments by stripping the arsenic from fly paperand mixing it into their tea. In addition to killing you slowly, ingestion of arsenic causes baldness. Arsenic remained a popular ingredient in many cosmetics until the 1920s.



After radium was discovered by feminist scientist Marie Curie and her husband in 1898, men and women everywhere coveted it for its signature luminosity. In the early twentieth century, many creams and lotions containing radium were marketed as providing the consumer with a youthful glow and wiping away wrinkles. In 1917, America became acquainted with the “Radium Girls,” a group of young women who were employed as painters in a watch making factory. There job was to paint the faces of watches with paint containing radium so that soldiers fighting in World War I could read them in the trenches at night. As they worked, the girls would line their eyes and lips with the toxic paint because radium was believed to be healthy. As time passed, the bones in the young women’s jaws started to deteriorate and they went blind. The public reacted with shock and horror and demanded that the watch company be held accountable for its actions. Though the negative publicity certainly affected radium’s popularity as a cosmetic ingredient, it was not banned from usage until the thirties when the FDA expanded its jurisdiction into the cosmetic industry.

Advertisement for Turn of the Century Cosmetic Containing Radium

According to Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Taken at its most literal reading, de Beauvoir implies that the performance of womanhood is a finely-honed craft.  For many people, learning the ins and outs of makeup and other cosmetics is closely associated with the passage from girlhood into womanhood. Given, then, the cosmetic industry’s seemingly unregulated frontiers, it appears that protecting women’s health was not a priority to fledgling regulatory agencies of the early twentieth century. As of 2015, the FDA still does not approve any ingredients used in cosmetics except for coloring agents, leaving the product’s safety up to the manufacturer’s discretion.

P.S. For any interested readers, I find that both BEAUTYLIESTRUTH and Beautypedia to be useful resources regarding what might be hiding in your makeup bag.

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