According to some sources, men and women have been slapping on the war-paint
since around 6000BCE. That’s a lot of foundation and eye-liner. And it’s fair to say our
ancestors weren’t too choosy about the ingredients they used to beautify their
appearances. To give you an idea, let us take you on a journey through the most
horrifying historical epochs in the annals of cosmetic creativity.
During this epoch, women often painted their lips and cheeks with the skin irritant, red ochre. They also took to lining their eyes with a soot-based substance known as kohl. Even more perilous was the use of a copper mineral known as Green Malachite as an eye-shadow.
During this epoch, In Ancient Greece, pale skin was a sign of wealth. To achieve this coveted complexion, chalk, ceruse and white lead were employed, with the latter two being particularly toxic. The non-toxic but potential irritant, red ochre was utilised for blush and lip colouring, as was charcoal for darkening of the eyebrows.
Ground Oyster Shells
During this epoch, In Ancient Greece, pale Pale skin was the thing in Rome as well. To get the Roman look, white lead was applied to faces along with a splash of rouge from things like berry juice and mercury-based pigment, cinnabar. Like the Greeks and Egyptian, Roman ladies were also pretty fond of painting their eyes with kohl. Nothing like a bit of soot to wow the opposite sex!
The Christian church largely discouraged the use of makeup. As a result, a natural look was preferred with an emphasis on a fair, clear complexion. This was often achieved by using egg whites – although a seemingly harmless ingredient, the egg whites could block the pores. The darkening of eyelashes and eyebrows was also attained with burnt cork.
Stale Urine Hair Lightener
Once again, a pristine pale complexion was the fashion, leading to the use of toxic substances, mercury and lead. For a dash of colour, the bright red pigment, Vermilion was often applied. For some reason, dilated pupils became a thing, so the ladies of the time resorted to using deadly nightshade. Although quite effective, the plant caused blindness.
Crushed Ants, Mouse Hair
Makeup was viewed as vulgar and associated with the lower classes during Victorian times. Because of this, societal norms leaned towards a more natural look. White lead continued to be used for skin colouring though, along with belladonna (deadly nightshade) for pupil dilation. A splash of beetroot juice was also utilised for flushing the cheeks.
Crushed Beetle Lip Balm
Rouged Cheeks, Red Lips, Dark Eybrows, Black Eyeliner
Green Malachite, Red Ochre, Henna, Kohl, Burned Almondscr
Pale Skin, Dark Eyeliner, Darkened Lashes, False Eyebrows
Ceruse, White Lead, Chalk, Red Ochre, Charcoal, Berry Juice, Vermilion
Darkened Eyeliner, Coloured Eyshadow, Blush, No Lipstick
Cinnibar, Crocodile Dung, Red Ochre, Mulberry Juice, Wine Dregs, Red Lead
Natural Fair Complexion, Pale Lipsticks, Light Rose Shades
Bleeding, Egg Whites, Lily Roots, Berry Juice, Wheat Flour
Pale Complexion, Brightly-Coloured Eyes, Red Lips, Dark Rouge
Bleeding, Egg White, Mercury, Vermilion, White Lead
Pale Complexion, Bitten-Lip Look, Darkened Eyebrows, No Eyeliner
Arsenic, Ammonia, Lead, Mercury, Rust, Spermaceti
Rosy Cheeks, Skinny Eyebrows, Red Lips, Dark Eyeliner, Black Eyeshadow
Asbestos, Cyanide, Kohl, Mercury, Thallium Acetate
Red Lipstick, Winged Eyeliner, Full and Defined Eyebrows
Beetroot Juice, Burned Cork, Coal Dust (1940s), Vaseline
Copper Tones, Shimmer Eyeshadow, Glossy Red Lips, Sun-Kissed Skin
Ambergris, Carrot Juice, Musk, Watermelon Extract
The main nasties found in the ingredients mentioned above are listed here in order of toxicity, together with their side-effects.
(Scores Based on the Substance Priority List – ATSDR)
Crocodile dung aside, many of the toxic ingredients mentioned here were eventually regulated or banned outright
in the UK and US, particularly with the establishment of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act 1938 (FDA).
Ingredients Restricted or Banned by the EU and FDA
Surprisingly, a few of the more bizarre ingredients used in makeup over the years
continue to be used for image projection by men and women around the world.
The carmine dye used to give lips a red colour was sourced from crushed cochineal beetles. Believe it or not, this is still used in cosmetics to this day. The unfortunate insects were rather popular with the Aztecs and Mayans and were later used during the sixteenth century.
This one actually makes a bit of sense. The iridescence of fish scales made them a valuable ingredient during the ancient days of yore. Thanks to their shimmering qualities, they were used as nail polish, blush, lipstick and eye-shadow.
As an ode to a nightingale, Japanese women (in Ancient times) harvested the bird’s droppings to brighten and repair damaged skin. Incredible as it may seem, Nightingale excreta is still used in certain high-end (pardon the expression) cosmetics.
Snails have had a hard time of it over the years. As well as being a delicacy in certain countries, the enzymes and non-toxic acids of their slimy secretions have, and continue to been used, in moisturisers, exfoliators and anti-aging creams.
Unsurprisingly, the following ingredients are no longer used, although we hasten to add
that these weren’re banned or regulated, but instead fell out of favour!
How crocodile dung was actually acquired is hard to fathom. But acquired it most certainly was, and used by Ancient Egyptians for mud baths as well as face masks. It was though that the dung helped to firm and tone the skin, presumably due to the minerals contained therein.
Due to their eyebrows falling off from using lead-based makeup, women in eighteenth century Britain often attached mouse fur to their faces as a replacement. Thankfully it didn’t catch on and isn’t still used to this day.
Urine has been utilised by many cultures. The Romans used it as a mouthwash, as well as a freckle-fader, while people from the middle ages applied urine to lighten their hair. Thanks to the ammonia content, which acts as a cleaning and bleaching agent, it proved very effective.