Harmful Beauty

Modern beauty products present all sorts of dilemmas. We may question their effectiveness and wonder if they truly achieve all that they claim. Are the promises of perfect skin, luxuriant hair, anti-aging and an overall improved appearance really true? Or are the ingredients in our beauty products actually harmful?

The quest for a better appearance is an age-old concern. While we remain unsure of our current products, here are several cosmetic practises from past centuries that were not only harmful but in some cases even resulted in death.

Chemical Beauty Ingredients

The debate rages over the contents of our beauty products. Do they contain carcinogens, toxins and other dangerous chemicals that may lead to cancer? The Internet provides many persuasive arguments both for and against our modern beauty treatments and it is something that the consumer ultimately has to make up their own mind about.

White lead powder isn’t something we would apply to our skins, as time has shown that it is lethally dangerous. Since the time of the ancient Romans, the use of lead powder had a minor role. Until the late seventeenth century when it made a prominent comeback as the preferred means of achieving a pale complexion for the rich and glamorous.

The powder was imported from Venice, which was then, the capital of all things fashionable. Lead carbonate or lead oxide, sometimes used with added lemon juice or vinegar was applied as a thin mask to the face, neck and bust. Despite documentation of the harmful effects such as withered and wrinkled skin, women persisted in using lead powder in the pursuit of beauty. Ultimately lead affected the body causing anemia, damage to the organs, tissues, intestines, kidneys and nervous system and eventual death.

Harmful Hair Extensions

Hair extensions give the illusion of longer, thicker hair. The downside to extensions include allergies and a burning sensation, from the glue used to secure the extensions to the scalp. In extreme cases hair extensions can result in bald patches and Alopecia. The added weight of the extensions can also pull at the scalp preventing hair growth and inducing headaches.

But the dangers and discomfort of hair extensions seems mild in comparison to the towering wigs worn by the woman of the eighteenth.century. In an age where the division between the rich and poor was everything, the vertically high wigs were seen as the ultimate status symbol of wealth.

The hair was pulled over a “cushion” (a pad stuffed with wool and horse’s hair). However the weight of the cushions created headaches and was later replaced with a wire frame. Over which natural and false hair (sheep’s wool still in it’s greasy state and horse hair) was then draped and covered with white powder created from flour and pomade.

Due to poor hygiene and the elaborate nature of these hair styles, they remained untouched for months, becoming a breeding ground for nits and mites. However, the real danger of these hair pieces was their close proximity to chandeliers. In the 1770s there was a series of deaths, the results of the wigs catching fire.

Dangerous Dentistry

The silver fillings used by dentist contains mercury, a highly toxic substance, which slowly leaches into the system and is believed to result in illnesses, including chronic fatigue, asthma like symptoms and possibly rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer’s.

But before modern dentistry, tooth loss was inevitable due to neglect and lack of hygiene. During the eighteenth century, false teeth were made from bone or ivory but unlike human teeth they lacked enamel coating and became prone to decay and the resulting bad breath. Human teeth provided a much better answer. Occasionally newspaper advertisements offered large sums of money in payment for people parting with their own teeth.

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But many of the human teeth were sourced, gruesomely from the dead. The eighteenth century was a time of unrest and wars, and the teeth from dead soldiers, were the most sought after, due to the donors apparent youth. But the recipients of the new teeth, along with a better smile were also inheriting decay and disease from the previous owners.

With the hindsight of time it is easy to look back and clearly see the harm of our past cosmetic practises. Perhaps it is only time that will conclude if we are currently destroying our health, while improving our appearances.