Of course, the use of white lead in ancient Rome paled in comparison to the workout it got during the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The “dead white” look was tres chic back then and as a result men and women painted their faces with a mixture of white lead and vinegar, peeled their skin with white lead and sublimate of mercury and used lead sulfate to remove their freckles (and hopefully nothing too vital, like a nose).
According to Kevin Jones, curator at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising Museum in Los Angeles, the use of cosmetics packed with lead, mercury, arsenic and other dangerous elements made for a particularly vicious cycle. “People would put whitening on their skin and over time, it would eat the skin away, causing all sorts of scarring,” he says. “And the way they covered that up was to apply thicker amounts of the makeup, which would then exacerbate the situation. It was a horrible process — once you got started you couldn’t stop.”
One way some people finally stopped was by dying, which eventually prompted members of the medical community and the press to sound the alarm about the dangers of certain cosmetics. When famous Irish beauty Marie Gunning (aka the Countess of Coventry) died in 1760, the press called her a “victim of cosmetics.”
Sadly, others would follow. In 1869, the American Medical Association published a paper entitled “Three Cases of Lead Palsy from the Use of a Cosmetic Called ‘Laird’s Bloom of Youth’” which outlined the symptoms (fatigue, weight loss, nausea, headaches, muscle atrophy, paralysis, etc.) caused by the regular use of the much-touted skin whitening lotion, advertised as a “delightful and harmless toilet preparation” which, incidentally, contained lead acetate and carbonate. Other popular blooms, balms, powders and potions of the 19th and early 20th century such as Berry’s Freckle Ointment, Milk of Roses, Snow White Enamel and Flake White contained mercury, lead, carbolic acid, mercuric chloride and a handful of other “delightful” corrosives.
The passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the subsequent formation of the FDA was the first step in bringing a patently dangerous era of arsenic complexion wafers, asthmatic “health” cigarettes, and radium bath salts to a close, at least in the U.S.
of rat poison
Unfortunately, cosmetic quackery continued to trudge on for 30 more years, filling the marketplace with all manner of untested, unregulated products. As a result, countless beauty mavens suffered serious health problems thanks to killer cosmetics like Lash Lure, an aniline eyelash dye introduced in the 1930s that caused 16 cases of blindness and one death and Koremlu, a depilatory cream of the same era that contained rat poison.
In 1936, Ruth DeForest Lamb, chief education officer of the FDA, published a collection of these tragic tales of botched beauty in her book “American Chamber of Horrors,” a move that helped bring about the eventual passage of the revamped Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938. Among other things, the new law brought cosmetics and medical devices under FDA control. Further safety measures followed, such as the FDA’s 1977 requirement that U.S. cosmetic manufacturers list ingredients on the label