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Dangerous Beauty: A (Very) Brief History of Toxic Cosmetics

Note from Joy: Kate is our resident history buff and gleefully dug up this great info on the history of some seriously toxic cosmetics. Sadly, there are still toxins in our cosmetics and many other products we use on a daily basis .

When I'’m not being a nutrition nerd over here at Joyous Health, I'’m usually reading, watching or studying something history-related. Forget clubs and restaurants; museums are my destination of choice for weekend fun. Not so long ago, I spent a Saturday checking out the Fashion Victims exhibit at the Bata Shoe Museum, which focused on the health risks stylish Victorians took in order to keep up with the trends. While I checked out everything foot-squashing shoes to arsenic-dyed ballgowns, I overheard a fellow museum-goer mention that she thought we were all so much better off before we had all these man-made chemicals in our cosmetics and clothing.

It’'s a sentiment I hear a lot, and I get where it comes from. In many cases natural is better than synthetic, but I often find myself reminding our joyous readers that just because something says it’'s natural, doesn’t automatically mean it’'s safe.

"Just because something says it'’s natural, doesn’'t automatically mean it’s safe."

The sad (but fascinating) truth is that we were putting toxic chemicalson our bodies long before we learned to make them in a lab. Let'’s take a look at some of the ugly things our ancestors did to look pretty.

Some of the earliest concrete evidence we have of cosmetic use comes from ancient Egypt, over 6,000 years ago. It’'s also where we get the earliest evidence we have of toxic beauty products. That iconic, kohl-lined “Cleopatra eye”? They got it by mixing soot and animal fat with lead and other minerals.

Before Coco Chanel made the suntan fashionable again, a pale complexion was de rigueur for everyone from ancient Greeks and Romans to upper-crust Elizabethans, and most of them got it by using white lead or arsenic. (By the way, overexposure to lead has been linked to decreased mental function, miscarriage, sperm abnormalities, memory loss, mood disorders and a whole host of other health issues. Arsenic is best known for its use as a rat poison.)

As the Age of Enlightenment dawned, you’'d think we got more enlightened about the stuff we used to make cosmetics. We didn’'t. 18th-century fashion plates went crazy (sometimes literally) for white lead, and to get rid of any particularly troublesome freckles they added some mercury and some lead sulfate for good measure. It got so bad that when the Countess of Coventry died in 1760, her death was officially attributed to the cosmetics she used to play up her famous beauty.

This brings us back to the Victorians. The queen who gave her name to this age declared makeup vulgar and fit only for actresses (considered at the time to be on par with prostitutes in terms of social acceptability). While Queen Victoria'’s objections to makeup may have arisen out of social snobbery or prudishness, by this point, fashionable women sure could use a break from all those toxic substances. Although, as I found out at the museum exhibit, all that arsenic ended up in clothing dyes instead.

So we didn'’t invent toxic, chemically laced cosmetics in the 20th century, we just got more efficient at producing them. We'’ve been putting things we shouldn'’t on our bodies for millennia. If you want to keep things both natural and toxin-free (remember: one doesn’t necessarily preclude the other!) read your labels, research what you don’'t recognize and follow one of our favourite cosmetic rules over here at Joyous Health:

"If you wouldn'’t put it in your food, don’'t put it on your skin."

5 Comments
Aubrie   •   January 20, 2015

Great article! Just wondering what type of clothing you choose to wear? Is it organic, only natural material, or do you agree with wearing synthetics? Simply because clothing is right against our skin all day long as well, like makeup. I appreciate any advice.

Reply
Joy McCarthy   •   January 21, 2015

I try to avoid clothing made in China and other countries where their regulations against certain chemicals are lacking. For instance, many brands that ship from China on boats are sprayed with formaldehyde to prevent growing mold. Failing that, I always makes sure I wash my clothing before ever wearing it. I don't have one particular brand that I purchase, but I like to support local Toronto independent shops as much as possible.

Kate McDonald Walker   •   January 21, 2015

Hi Aubrie, Thanks! My clothing approach is similar to what Joy described above. I'm a big fan of shopping local, and not just for health reasons. I love supporting artisans in my community economically and artistically. Plus shopping local can feel like a bit of a treasure hunt. I do have shoes and bags that are made out of synthetics because I've made a choice to avoid leather (although there are definitely cleaner, more sustainable brands of leather goods out there), but I take care to buy them from companies that are pretty transparent about their manufacturing process. Kate - Joyous Health Team


Celine   •   April 2, 2015

Hello I'm writing a book about toxic food, beauty products and of course solutions to change this. I was wondering if I could use the information on this blog

Reply
Joy McCarthy   •   April 3, 2015

Sure, as long as you credit Joyous Health. You can email us at hello@joyoushealth.com to discuss. Thanks!


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