The price of beauty: the dangerous cosmetics used until the 20th century
A lack of medical and scientific understanding meant that life-threatening beauty treatments, some of them going back to ancient times, were still relied on in the 20th century. Indeed, new and yet more dangerous ones were still being discovered. From poisonous creams to X-ray hair removal, Lucy Jane Santos delves into the history of cosmetics and reveals how a simple glow-up could cause you to blow up...
In 1851, doctor and explorer Johann Jakob von Tschudi wrote an article in a Viennese medical journal about the residents of Styria, southeast Austria. Readers learned that while the Styrians lived a conventional, hardworking existence in this mountainous region, they differed from most people in one, curious way: a dedication to eating arsenic trioxide, commonly known as ‘white arsenic’.
Various arsenical compounds were already in widespread use by this period, both as a renowned (and feared) poison and as a medicine.
One of the most celebrated arsenic-based therapeutics was ‘Fowler’s solution’, a liquid substance developed during the 1780s containing potassium arsenite. It was initially recommended as a treatment for malaria, but soon gained a reputation as a general tonic, an effective treatment for eczema and other severe skin disorders, and a cure for virulent diseases such as cholera.
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But the existence of arsenic-eaters (known as ‘toxicophagi’) in Austria stimulated a renewed interest in arsenic’s beneficial effects. In particular, there was a great deal of excitement over stories that the Styrians not only reported increased endurance and energy, but that they had acquired improved complexions, with sparkling eyes and rosy cheeks. In effect, arsenic could make you beautiful.
While it was routinely reported that excessive and persistent use of arsenic could be at best an irritant, and at worst, fatal, its popularity increased. Indeed, there did seem to be some short-term benefits to users’ complexions – not least because arsenic dilates the capillaries, giving the temporary effect of a flattering flush to the cheeks.
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Recognising a growing trend, a number of companies soon began offering arsenic-based cosmetics. By the mid-1890s, consumers could buy products such as ‘Dr James P Campbell’s Safe Arsenic Complexion Wafers’ and even caramels made with tiny quantities of arsenic. The popularity of such products waned in the years immediately after the First World War, but soaps laced with the substance were still on sale well into the 1930s.
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Helen Cavendish, a stalwart of the high society salons dotted around Mayfair, London, was well regarded by her wealthy clients, and they trusted her judgment when it came to the latest in beauty treatments. So, in 1911, when she launched a range of products utilising the radioactive element radium, they were an almost-instant success.
The discovery of radium in the late 19th century by the Curies had prompted a flurry of experiments to scope the limits of its potential applications. Scientists and, in turn, medical practitioners and entrepreneurs, would struggle to understand the complicated properties of radioactive elements. By the early 1900s, the curious and still mostly unfathomable properties of radium would find expression in a wide range of goods and services aimed at the general consumer.
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Most of these products were grounded in the theory of mild radium therapy, proponents of which argued that exposure to radium in minute doses (usually administered through radium- laced water or by breathing in radon gas) caused a small amount of stress to biological organisms. This strain would trigger a chain of psychological reactions that worked as a potent metabolic catalyst to improve joint movements, boost the immune system, and trigger a whole host of other positive changes in the body.
Cavendish’s Caradium line of products – which included shampoo, hair growers and face creams – were made with radium water and herbs under the supervision of a self-styled “specialist in radioactive toilet preparations”. Rival cosmetics on the market included ‘White’s Radium Hair Food’, Frederick Godfrey’s ‘Renair Radioactive Antiseptic Hair Tonic’ and the ‘O-Radium Hat-Pad’.
While the dangers of radium are now much better known, there is little evidence that these products caused great harm to the general public, as the amount of radium (a hugely expensive substance) they contained was minuscule. One victim, however, was the wealthy US socialite Eben Byers (1880–1932), whose excessive consumption of a pain-relief drug named Radithor led him to die an agonising death from multiple radiation-induced cancers.
Mercury – also commonly referred to as quicksilver – has a long history of being used to treat skin problems. In the 1300s, the metallic element was typically added to animal fat to form a thick cream, which was then slathered on by patients affected by psoriasis and leprosy.
A few centuries later, a notable recipe “to procure Beauty” was published in Hannah Woolley’s 1675 book The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight in Preserving, Physick, Beautifying, and Cookery, instructing readers to: “Take four Ounces of Sublimate, and one Ounce of crude Mercury, and beat them together... in a wooden Mortar, and wooden Pestle” before eventually laying the substance on the skin “with Oyl of white Poppy”.
Mercury compounds known as mercury salts, which dissolve in water or alcohol, were usually more straightforward to use than the element in its purest form. These were the basis of medicines like calomel, used to treat everything from malaria to yellow fever, as well as products such as Dr T Felix Gouraud’s ‘Oriental Cream’ (launched in the 1880s), which pledged to treat “every blemish on beauty” – so long as you applied the cream using the company’s branded velvet sponge.
But the problem with mercury is that it accumulates in the body – the more you use, the more it affects you. It spreads rapidly through tissue, loosens teeth, causes stomach ulcers, damages the nervous system and ultimately causes death.
It wasn’t until 1936 that mercury chloride was finally removed from Gouraud’s cream and the formula changed for good. However, calomel was not actually struck off the British Pharmacopoeia (Britain’s official register of professionally approved remedies), until the 1950s, when more effective treatments for ailments such as malaria and yellow fever were discovered, and the fatal dangers of mercury confirmed.
The blister beetle (a collective term that actually includes around 7,500 different insect species) excretes the fluid cantharidin, a poisonous agent that causes swelling when it comes into contact with the skin. Historically, this phenomenon led the blister beetle – also known as ‘Spanish fly’ – to be used as an aphrodisiac, because in small quantities, the secretions trigger an allergic reaction that inflames the genitals.
Preparations made with cantharidin (cantharides) were in use for thousands of years. The Roman historian and politician Tacitus relates a tale about Augustus Caesar’s wife, Empress Livia, serving dinner guests a meal laced with Spanish fly to spark illicit activity and leave them vulnerable to blackmail.
Meanwhile, the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates writes about the power of blister beetles in helping those suffering from swelling caused by excess water retention – a condition then known as dropsy (and now, as oedema).
Patients affected by other ailments such as ulcers, piles and skin disorders were also regularly treated with medicines made from the crushed and powdered bodies of these insects. But despite being known to cause nasty blisters, along with other unpleasant side-effects such as nausea and dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), cantharidin found its way into several well-known brands of hair tonics on sale during the 19th century.
Powdered beetle (plus sage, salt, quinine and alcohol) was included in the Moscano hair restorers invented by Martha Matilda Harper (1857–1950), while cantharides were a key ingredient in ‘Barry’s Tricopherous for the Skin and Hair’, trademarked in the 1890s.
It was suggested that the resulting toxic reaction encouraged hair growth, stimulated the blood supply, and rebooted the follicle. An advert for Barry’s Tricopherous clarified: “If the pores of the scalp are clogged, or if the blood and other fluids do not circulate freely... the result is scurf, dandruff, shedding of the hair, greyness, dryness and harshness of the ligaments, and entire baldness.”
Outside of Vaseline Petroleum jelly, we don’t often associate the use of petrol with beauty. But treatments using this substance, created by distilling and refining petroleum, were popular during the 19th century. Essentially, petrol acted as a dry shampoo, stripping the hair of accumulated dirt and dust.
For home use, you could buy ‘Madame Fox’s Life for the Hair’. The product, sold as a “positively harmless... infallible hair restorer” was made using “a Deodorized product of petroleum and the Extract of Leaves of the Bay Tree”. Hair salons, which until at least the 1920s often didn’t have access to hot and cold running water, relied on ‘petroleum washes’ to clean the hair of their clients while dry.
But applying these lotions and then towelling them off sometimes led to fatal consequences. In July 1897, a woman named Fanny Samuelson died after her hair caught alight during a petrol wash at Monsieur Emile and Co’s upmarket salon in London. At the inquest the following month, it was determined that the petrol was so unstable that the friction caused by merely rubbing the saturated hair would have been sufficient to result in combustion.
Another equally unappealing alternative to petrol was carbon tetrachloride, a toxic organic compound that was also widely used as a solvent and as a fire extinguisher. Unfortunately, despite following guidance regarding the importance of ventilation, hairdressers soon found out that it wasn’t much safer. The effects of breathing in the solution were similar to inhaling chloroform, and, at high concentrations, could affect the central nervous system and lead to death.
One such fatality occurred in July 1909 at the hairdressing department of Harrods when a customer named Helenora Elphinstone-Dalrymple died during a treatment. Despite the salon ensuring that the windows were open, the inquest determined that Helenora suffered from a pre-existing heart condition and her death had been “accelerated by the fumes”.
Being a beauty-conscious person in the early 20th century was full of twists and turns; there was always something new to try. In the early 1900s, the latest craze was X-rays, and since discoverer Wilhelm Röntgen had not patented his method of generating them, people were soon building their own machines. All you needed was a cathode-ray tube and a power source.
Medical experimenters – who were using the rays to burn away skin disease and tumours – reported a curious side effect: the patient’s hair often fell out where the X-rays had been trained.
While there is some evidence that individual beauty culturalists experimented with X-ray machines on an informal basis during the late 19th century (X-rays were discovered in 1895), it was not until the 1920s that this trend exploded in popularity. One of the leading providers was the Tricho Institute. This franchise-based organisation was active in both the US and the UK and was owned by a New York physician, Albert C Geyser, along with his son, Frank.
The Tricho System was simple enough: numerous magazine advertisements show what it would have looked like. The client was placed in front of what appeared to be a large mahogany box with a small front window, along with an adjustable metal applicator the size and shape of the area to be treated. A switch was turned on and a timer set for the period of exposure (usually around three minutes). When this time had elapsed, the machine automatically switched off. This procedure would have been repeated up to six times.
While scary to us now, X-ray hair removal offered significant short-term benefits over alternative treatments available during the period. It was relatively painless, convenient, completely free of odour (an improvement on any creams available at the time) and came with a five-year guarantee. It was marketed as the clean, ‘modern’ method.
Unfortunately, the relatively untrained and inexperienced operators could – and did – cause severe burns and skin damage. Studies conducted almost 30 years after the peak of this practice also reported cases of women who had visited X-ray beauty practitioners in their youth and went on to develop basal cell carcinomas, tumours, necrotic ulcerations and metastases in their lungs and axillary lymph nodes.
Lucy Jane Santos is a writer and historian with a special interest in the science behind the history of cosmetics. She is the author of Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium (Icon Books, 2020)