Since ancient times women and men have altered their physical appearance to become more attractive to themselves and others. “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.
Cochineal are scale insects and the source of a natural dye called carmine. Producers harvest female cochineal in Peru and the Canary Islands on plantations of prickly pear cacti. The insects 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. The lead could cause death, if an individual didn’t expire from other causes first.
In 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 first.
In the Nineteenth Century, Queen Victoria denounced cosmetics for the face as vulgar. But this didn’t stop women’s efforts to enhance their complexions. Pale was the fashionable non-color. Women wore hats and gloves, and used parasols to keep the sun off their skin. This may have protected them from skin cancer, but the habit of using arsenic to lighten the skin was far more dangerous. A package for Arsencial Lotion declared the product to be ”safe and absolutely harmless.” Arsenic wafers could be eaten for a more immediate result.
Large eyes were an asset. Eye shadows with mercury and lead ingredients were used to enhance the eye area and many women used eyedrops made from deadly nightshade to dilate their pupils. The practice often resulted in blindness.
Nail care changed in the 1920s when Henry Ford discovered benefit of using of black lacquer on his Model T cars. Black lacquer dried more quickly than other colors. Competitors developed fast drying lacquer in a variety of 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.
What Cosmetics did Women Use in the 1920s? Here’s a sampling.
The cosmetics used in the video are fairly innocuous. Note the use of carmine tint, still in use today.
If you compare ancient or Victorian beauty treatments with current practice, you may feel a bit smug. You may think luxury cosmetics, and even the ones at the local drug store or supermarket don’t use lead or mercury. But are you sure? How would you know?
The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act passed in 1938. It’s been amended over the years, but still doesn’t regulate the cosmetics industry. Anyone can make a batch of homemade moisturizer and sell the product 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 can 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 to review five chemicals used in personal care products each year. Personal care products contain over 50,000 chemicals, so even if the bill becomes law, it will take years to vet the chemicals currently in use.
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. I like how it looks. Like thousands of women, I purchase products that should be safe to use. But I don’t know for sure. 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. We don’t drive the same cars, and women don’t wear the same makeup.
Nefertiti by Nina Aldin Thune. Creative Commons Attribution.
Cochineal Extract by H. Zell. Creative Commons Attribution.
Elizabeth I. Public Domain.
Woman and Parasol by Albert Edelfelt. Public Domain.
A Rare Beauty by Gustave Jean Jacquet. 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.
“Feinstein, Collins Introduce Bill.” Dianne Feinstein Press Release. 2017.
Laura Entis. “That Moisturizer You’re Slathering on Your Face Isn’t Regulated.” Fortune. June 27, 2017.
Molly Edmonds. “How Makeup Works.” How Stuff Works.
Sheila Kaplan. “Cosmetics May Face New Safety Regulation.” STAT. Sept. 27, 2016.
Colleen Kratofil. “Can you Guess How Much a Woman Spends on Makeup?” People. Mar. 20, 2017
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.