Since ancient times women and men have enhanced their physical appearance. How ancient, you ask. Cleopatra used a lip color that got its reddish tint from ground carmine beetles. Before you wrinkle your nose in disgust, consider that modern lipstick formulas contain cochineal or carmine.
The female cochineal are harvested in Peru and the Canary Islands on plantations of prickly pear cacti. They are then sun-dried, crushed, and processed so the resulting carmine can be used in various dyes, including those in lipstick. Because some people are allergic to carmine or cochineal extract, its presence must be listed as an ingredient. This is also handy if you don’t want to put crushed bugs on your lips.
Ancient Egyptians also used kohl, a mixture of metal, lead, copper, ash, and burnt almonds. This was applied around the eye to ward off the Evil Eye. It also had the then unknown benefit of killing bacteria. On the other hand, the lead could lead to death, if an individual didn’t expire from other causes.
Jumping to the Middle Ages, color for lips and eyes was out. Painting faces, necks, and chests with ceruse was in. Ceruse was a mixture of lead and vinegar, so it had several side effects. It could cause hair to fall out, which might explain Elizabeth I’s high forehead. Lead could also cause muscle paralysis. And death, if another malady didn’t occur.
Moving into the nineteenth century denounced cosmetics for the face as vulgar. But this didn’t stop efforts to enhance the complexion. Pale was the fashionable non-color. Women wore hats and gloves, as well as using parasols to keep the sun away from the skin. This may have protected them from skin cancer, but the habit of using arsenic to lighten the skin was far more dangerous.
The package for Arsencial Lotion declared the product to be”safe and absolutely harmless.” Arsenic wafers were eaten for a more immediate result.
Eye shadows with mercury and lead ingredients were used. And to keep the pupils dilated to enlarge the eye, women applied eyedrops made from deadly nightshade. Not surprisingly, this often resulted in blindness.
Nail care changed in the 1920s when Henry Ford discovered the use of black lacquer on his Model T cars. Black lacquer dried more quickly than other colors. Competitors developed fast drying lacquer paint in other colors, and cosmetic companies applied the same principle to nail polish. The primary ingredient was nitrocellulose, a substance also used in smokeless gunpowder and false teeth.
By now you may be feeling smug. Our luxury cosmetics, and even the ones at the local drug store or supermarket don’t use lead or mercury. Are you sure? The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was passed in 1938. Though it’s been amended, anyone can still make a batch of homemade moisturizers and sell them on-line. No paperwork or testing required. The same is true for cosmetic companies. With certain exceptions, they don’t have to list their ingredients. There are no standards for cosmetics branded as organic or hypoallergenic.
So, what’s in our cosmetics? Here’s a sampling.
Lead acetate is used in hair color kits, most often the slow acting ones marketed to men. The European Union has banned the substance, and the National Library of Medicine lists it as a possible carcinogen.
Formaldehyde compounds are used in hair straitening products and cn cause headaches and shortness of breath. Long term exposure could increase the risk of cancer.
Sometimes the problem isn’t a single chemical, but two chemicals mixed together. For example, 1,4-Dioxane is formed by two ingredients most often used to create those lovely suds and bubbles in shampoo and bubble baths. The chemicals are banned in Canada.
The Feinstein-Collins Personal Care Products Safety Act, first introduced in 2015, still awaits action. The bill requires the Food and Drug Administration review five chemicals per year. Personal care products contain over 50,000 chemicals.
The average woman who buys makeup spends $43 in one shopping trip and $15,000 on makeup during her lifetime. The entire beauty industry is worth $382 billion, globally.
Disclosure: I use makeup, because I like how it looks. I wear it even when I’m spending the day at my computer.
I do think it’s time to revisit regulations for food products, pharmaceutical products and cosmetics. In 1939 the Delahaye 165 Cabriolet was a popular upscale automobile, but times have changed since the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act became law.
Nefertiti by Nina Aldin Thune. Creative Commons Attribution.
Elizabeth I. Public Domain.
Woman and Parasol by Albert Edelfelt. Public Domain.
Zoya Professional Nail Lacquer by Artbeauty. Creative Commons Attribution.
1939 Delahaye type 165 Cabriolet by Edvcc. Creative Commons Attribution.
Dangerous Beauty. Global Founders.
Thomas M. Burton. For the Cosmetics Industry, a Regulatory Makeover Awaits. Wall Street Journal. Mar 1, 2018
Laura Entis. “That Moisturizer You’re Slathering on Your Face Isn’t Regulated.” Fortune. June 27, 2017.
Colleen Kratofil. “Can you Guess How Much a Woman Spends on Makeup?” People. Mar 20, 2017
Diane Mapes. “Suffering for Beauty has Ancient Roots.” MSNBC News. Jan 1, 2008.
Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.
Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.