How much lead, arsenic and mercury would you consume for beauty? Enough to cause life-threatening results, or just a few adverse side effects? These questions may be tongue-in-cheek, but you might be surprised by the attitudes of makeup wearers throughout history. More surprising still, is the continued relevance of this question in today’s world.
But before diving into some of the issues with modern cosmetics, let’s first look a couple of examples in history and explore just how far people were willing to go in pursuit of fashion.
Would die for – Maria Coventry, a tragic Cinderella story
Like something out of a fairy tale, stunning Irish commoner Maria Gunning caught the eye of royalty at a ball, wearing a borrowed dress. Soon a celebrity, Maria was invited to several glamorous parties and balls before she married Earl George Coventry in 1752.
Maria famously wore ceruse, a whitening powder made of lead oxide, hydroxide, and carbonate. Unfortunately, the mixture of hydroxide, carbonate and moisture in her skin formed acids that slowly ate away at her face. To cover her erupting blemishes, Maria piled on more powder! She used mercuric fucus daily to give her lips a red finish. She died at 27 from tuberculosis, with lead and mercury poisoning believed to have contributed to her premature death. The less than charitable local press in 1760 described her as a “victim of cosmetics”.
Would risk developing cancer for – American consumers of an arsenic “wonder food”
Imagine a health supplement with arsenic as its active ingredient! In 1902, a US chain store catalogue advertised “Arsenic Complexion Wafers” which promised to give its users smooth, clear skin. The product guaranteed that it was harmless and would remove freckles, blackheads and pimples. Given arsenic has been used by serial killers throughout the ages, it’s shocking to think people voluntary bought and consumed these wafers.
You might be thinking that in today’s world, using newfangled makeup that poses potential health risks is the reserve of wannabe celebrities and reality television stars. After all, the tried and true brands on your supermarket shelves can be trusted, right?
A test in America showed the 400 types of lipstick, including Maybelline and L’Oreal, contain lead. We ingest lipstick every time we apply it. If it contains lead, repeated exposure can accumulate in our bodies over time. In Australia, the government passed laws to limit the amount of lead in household paint to 0.1%, as elevated levels can result in brain damage. It’s ironic that while lead use is heavily regulated in paint, there are no restrictions on makeup.
Small amounts of mercury are also used in many brands of mascara as a preservative. Imagine the very substance used in some batteries, light bulbs and thermometers being applied to your face! This toxic metal has been linked to kidney damage and neurological problems.
Studies have also shown that arsenic is an ingredient in many eyeliners on the market. Of course, many argue it’s only used in miniscule amounts and cannot result in arsenic poisoning, which can cause damage to the lungs, skin, kidneys and liver.
After all, sceptics and some health authorities label reports about the dangers of toxic metals in makeup as alarmist. On the other hand, many reputable experts or peak safety bodies argue a compelling case there are no safe levels of substances such as lead, in the bloodstream.
Who should we believe? And if we’re unsure, just how much of a risk are we willing to take? Fortunately, there are excellent, high quality alternatives, for example, certified organic makeup such as Zuii Organic, which does not contain toxic metals or other undesirable ingredients.
So perhaps the question we should ask ourselves is this: if faced with brands that have been proven to contain potentially dangerous substances or a safe option, why is it even a choice?
Cat is a writer and editor with a special interest in natural skincare and community development. She is currently living the dream — travelling, writing, and volunteering in developing countries. In her spare time, she enjoys wrangling ditties on her out-of-tune ukulele, photography, and freshly brewed coffee.