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History's Craziest Beauty Trends

January 08 /2020

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Oh, to be alive in a more refined period. With elegant tendrils cascading down the shoulders, clothed in carefully-draped fine fabrics, and a generous application of lead on the face to elevate the complexion. It’s shocking but true — the past is riddled with some seriously intense (hear “crazy“) beauty techniques. Think we’ve got things bad now with toxins? Just wait until you hear some of these truly wacky beauty trends. You’ll be thankful these are history.

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1: Lead In Facial Powders & Creams

Throughout history, lead was a common ingredient in makeup, from facial whitening creams to powders. Unfortunately, the craze for that stark, white-faced signature look was death. A lot of death, actually. These dangerous beauty products inspired a few centuries of wide-spread lead-poisoning. According to the CDC, exposure to high levels of lead can cause anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage. Sounds fun, right? In fact, Elizabeth I’s heavy applications may have been related to her cause of death.

Queen Elizabeth I

2: Arsenic Wafers

Arsenic wafers were a popular beauty trend in the 19th century, especially for whitening purposes. These doses of arsenic were small enough to not be fatal but gave the sickly look that was heavily sought after. (Oh the joys of the sickly look!) Imagine knowingly poisoning yourself to impress others. Gross.

Box of Arsenic Wafers
OTC preparation, Dr. James P. Campbell’s Safe Arsenic Complexion Wafers. 2008.0062.04.
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3: Sulfuric Acid Hair Dye

In Renaissance Europe, it was conventional to dye your locks with something called “Oyle of Vitrioll.” Obviously, this is a fantastical tonic of only the finest ingredients—right? Nope. It’s just sulfuric acid. Books such as Delightes for Ladies instruct women to apply the dangerous substance straight to the head to jazz up the ‘do.

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4: Radioactive Face Cream

Topical usage of radioactive ingredients marked the early 20th century, promising a fresh, youthful complexion, along with other benefits. At this time, companies such as Radior were established to market these types of products. With all we know about radioactivity today, it’s hard to believe people actually used these on their faces. But not only did they use it, they kept using it for years. Tragically, many of the ladies who worked in factories manufacturing radium died from radioactive exposure. (You can read more about this sordid history in Kate Moore’s fascinating book The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women. )

Radioactive face cream ad

5: Lead-Based Kohl Eyeliner

Lead-Based Kohl Eyeliner in Ancient Egypt

We’ve all seen images of ancient Egyptian rulers with their eyes elegantly outlined in black. But did you know that trademark look was made with lead-based Kohl eyeliner? You heard me, lead. All of that exposure to the toxin caused many ancient men and women to go blind. It was probably pretty hard to walk like an Egyptian when you couldn’t see. . .

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These are only some of the controversial trends we’ve seen in history. Fortunately, the beauty industry has come a looongggg way since. Nevertheless, you should still be wary of the ingredients in your beauty products.

Just because there isn’t radioactive material in your moisturizer doesn’t mean you’re safe from harmful toxins.

Similarly, the wide-spread use of an ingredient doesn’t make it safe. And as we’ve said before, the USA allows a ton of known toxic ingredients in the marketplace. (Deodorants with aluminum, anyone?)

So next time you hear “but it can’t be that bad for you because literally everyone uses it,” remember these bits of gory history and cringe, babe.

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Lucky for you, toxic beauty isn’t the only option! At Beauty by Earth, we’re all about getting back to clean, natural, organic, and vegan ingredients. Because we don’t think you should ever have to trade effective for safe. Beauty goods should be good for your body and good for the planet while making you look stunning. Nothing less will do!

So, check out has some fantastic products available—free of arsenic, acid, and all other radioactive and harmful ingredients! You can breathe easy knowing the products you use are safe and natural.

Bygone days be busted!

P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about the 12 worst ingredients commonly found in beauty products, sign up for our free guide here!

Camille

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