Some people might be inclined to believe that only in the modern era have people been killing themselves over the pursuit of beauty. However, history is a good way to prove otherwise. From things like corsets to the lead-laced skin care products of the early 20th century, people have been slowly killing themselves in favor of beauty for centuries. This has primarily been the case because physical beauty and appearance have long been part of the complex mechanism that maintains one’s social and peer status, which in turn has become an influential factor in shaping the culture of a certain civilization. What might be the worst part of all this is that, up until very recently, cosmetics and skin care products have been known to contain various toxic and poisonous substances, including heavy metals like mercury and lead.
One doesn’t have to look only at the recent past for deadly skin care and cosmetics, however. The ancient past is filled with various deadly concoctions. Take ancient Egypt, for example. The ancient Egyptian culture was one that had an incredibly strong focus on cosmetics, to the point that an incident where masons and workers refused to work until they were provided more make-up as part of their payment. It is therefore no real surprise that the Egyptians also utilized some of the deadliest components as part of their cosmetics, particularly around the eye area, something for which they’ve become infamous for. In general, their cosmetics contained a greenish copper ore, lead sulfide, and a soot-like substance that contained toxic amounts of lead.
Just what are the effects of such things? Well, aside from chronic cases of pink eye, there were other negative effects to such cosmetic concoctions. Exposure, even for short periods, was known to lead to irritability and insomnia. Dizziness has also been attributed to those chemicals. Insomnia can become chronic with prolonged exposure. Another possible long-term side effect for such toxic skin care products includes a decrease in one’s mental alertness and faculties. The fact that these were applied around the eye area and on the eyelids, the thinnest membranes of the skin, just increases the chances of them being absorbed into the body to do damage.
The Greeks did something even worse, choosing to not only cover their eyelids with toxic substances, but also their entire face. Ancient Greeks were fond of using white lead facial cream, supposedly to project the image of having a fair complexion. It was also used to cover blemishes and generally project a more youthful, fresher appearance. It is noted that some Greeks, and Romans later on, were aware of the skin ruptures that the lead masks caused, yet widespread use was still common. According to some unverifiable accounts, the only Greek city-state that did not experience widespread use of white lead masks was Sparta, which eschewed cosmetics, perfumes, and other “luxuries.”
Later on, from the 15th to the 17th centuries, not only was the Greco-Roman practice of using face masks of white lead coming back, it was accompanied by something worse. European men and women, in their attempts to achieve the then-attractive appearance of being white (almost to the point of being pale), used a process on their skin that relied on using mercury to cleanse it. This, combined with the lead masks, resulted in facial damage, which were covered up with further exposure to lead and mercury.