Arsenic and dead face ☠️

Skincare horror stories from beyond the grave

Stephanie Papanikolas Avatar

Stephanie Papanikolas
Oct 31, 2019 · 5 min read

Person with "boo" on their face
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

The beauty standards of Victorian England are notorious for toxic femininity, in every sense of the phrase. Ratsbane — the white-powder form of arsenic — experienced a period of popularity as a beauty supplement in the late 19th century, despite its lengthy history as an extremely noxious poison. This Victorian makeup trend was influenced by the popular exoticism of Styria, a state in Austria, where the practice of eating arsenic began at age 15. The arsenic eaters exemplified Victorian beauty standards, with robust physical figures and smooth, creamy complexions, free of blemishes. So, then, began the 19th century’s obsession with arsenic, considered to be simultaneously lethal and miraculous. But throughout human history, and even today, this belief has been timeless: beauty is to die for.

Arsenic complexion wafers

By 1890, Dr. James P. Campbell was selling arsenic complexion wafers, which he “guaranteed absolutely safe and harmless to anybody.” You wouldn’t want to see Dr. Campbell for a dermatological exam though — he was possibly a work of fiction, invented by advertisers. Women would nibble at the wafers, or even wash with the poison to achieve an ideal complexion, free of “freckles, black-heads, pimples, vullgar [sic] redness, yellow or ‘muddy’ skins and other facial disfigurements.” Of course, the arsenic was slowly killing them, but anyone who lived long enough to reap the alleged “benefits” of the arsenic complexion wafers would slowly become tinted with a green pallor. Ironically, using arsenic as a soap would not only cause hyperpigmentation to worsen over time but also cause skin to break out in keratosis, characterized by growing sores and rashes.

Dr. James P. Campbell photograph

Photograph via the Smithsonian Institute

Arsenic in makeup is just one toxic beauty trend that’s repeatedly resurged in the history of cosmetics — lead has also been used in makeup since ancient times. The Ancient Egyptians were one of the earliest proponents of lead-based makeup, and a bright-yellow mineral form of arsenic called orpiment may have been combined with lead and used as a pigment in Ancient Egyptian eyeliner. For some, the chance to achieve physical perfection is worth staking on myths and legends of fallen civilizations and remote cultures. It’s a knowing hubris, that achieving otherworldly beauty comes at the price of your own life, and even the most powerful among us are not immune.

The death mask of Queen Elizabeth I

When Queen Elizabeth I took the throne in 1558, it was a period of intense tumult for England and Ireland. After the execution of her mother, Anne Bolyn, Elizabeth had been declared illegitimate, only becoming queen after the half-siblings who preceded her had untimely deaths that left the monarchy in disarray. Perhaps the political chaos that resulted in her ascension is why Elizabeth felt it was of utmost importance to maintain an image of impenetrable authority, which included the appearance of otherworldly chastity and perfection.

Queen Elizabeth painting

Painting via Wikimedia Commons

Even today, the most striking part of Queen Elizabeth I’s public image is her stark pale skin. She wore a white foundation sometimes called Spirits of Saturn, or Venetian ceruse. The ghost-white paste was made up of white lead and vinegar, worn not only to achieve the pale skin associated with nobility, but also to conceal scars left from smallpox. Elizabeth began wearing the white lead makeup shortly after she took the throne, and continued to wear it every day until her death when, legend has it, the true horror of her real face was revealed.

Over time, her pale-white skin resembled that of a corpse. A dark blue line around her gums could be seen any time the queen flashed her teeth for a smile. Severe skin discoloration would have made her expression look smeared, as if her face was slowly melting. And all the while, the lead absorbed through the skin on her face was slowly killing almost every organ in her body, including her entire nervous system, which would have given way to strange behavior. Some people believe this is why Elizabeth was known to have a short temper that worsened toward the end of her reign. In the months before her death, Queen Elizabeth I refused food or drink, enhancing the effects of lead-induced anorexia in her body. She withered away until finally succumbing to her poisonous blood.

Mercury poisoning and skin lightening

Unfortunately, dangerous skin lightening techniques are not unique to the days of yore. Today, skin bleaching persists as a dangerous beauty trend, despite its often lethal cost. Instead of arsenic or lead, mercury is a common ingredient found in skin lightening creams and soaps. Although the FDA prohibits the use of mercury (except, in rare cases, as a preservative), mercury-based skin lightening creams are still sold illegally in the United States.

In 2010, a 28-year-old woman was admitted to a hospital after receiving mercury-based skin bleaching treatments at a beauty salon for 11 months. Her complaints included pain in her joints and extreme swelling in the face. Doctors soon discovered she had nephrosis, a serious condition in which the ducts of the kidney die. This leads to the improper absorption of protein, which can eventually cause a heart attack or a stroke. In another case, a 54-year-old woman’s onset of dementia and epilepsy was linked to a skin lightening cream with high levels of mercury, which she used daily for 6 years. An MRI scan revealed that her brain was covered in lesions. In other words, the use of a mercury-based skin bleaching cream was eating away at her brain. Both women ceased using the cosmetics in order to receive detoxification treatment that saved their lives.

A cautionary tale

Throughout the history of skincare, women have all-too-often reached for toxic skin products. The greatest irony is that, although they hope to improve their complexions, the topical application of poison would have worsened the appearance of their skin over time. Some might even have little regard for the deadly effects of these products on the body, feeling more than willing to pay the high costs of obtaining the otherworldly standards of beauty so valued in their culture. The result is that some, like Queen Elizabeth I, tend to rely more and more heavily on these products to improve their appearance, even as the harmful ingredients slowly kill them.

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Stephanie Papanikolas

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