By Michelle Smith, Senior lecturer in Literary Studies, Deakin University.
Throughout history, humans have been willing to try almost any method or product to improve their physical appearance. In response, enterprising businesses and beauty moguls have conspired to sell us almost anything — from water to poison — in the guise of cosmetic treatments. While many cosmetic products have eventually proven to have little efficacy, a significant number have also caused physical harm and even death.
Cosmetics and cosmetic surgery are now subject to more stringent regulation than in the 19th century, when lead-based powders and face creams containing poisons were not uncommon. However, even today there are significant serious side-effects and potential dangers from cosmetic procedures, in particular.
For example, it was recently reported that cosmetic injections, such as platelet-rich plasma injections and facial fillers, are leading to a significant number of patients suffering from chronic, and potentially disfiguring, bacterial infections. While these kinds of non-invasive procedures are common, with over $1 billion spent annually on cosmetic jabs in Australia alone, research suggests that almost one-fifth of patients could suffer from such complications.
Of course, even when the greatest medical care is taken, there are still potential questions about the health risks of utilising Botox (Botulinum Toxin Type A) to combat or stave off facial wrinkles. While a large number of people, primarily women, have embraced Botox and believe it to be safe, in 2009 the US Food and Drug Administration added a warning noting that Botox “may spread from the area of injection to produce symptoms of botulism”, such as muscle weakness and breathing difficulty.
Even the most common beauty products still have potential risks associated with them.
Consider lipstick, which is placed directly on the thin skin of the lips, readily ingested throughout wear, and reapplied multiple times throughout the day. Manufacturers are not required to list lead as an ingredient in lipsticks as it is regarded as a contaminant, but most contain lead, and some colours in much higher concentrations. An FDA test of 400 lipsticks conducted in 2011 found that every one contained lead. Nevertheless, the FDA advises that up to 10 parts per million of lead is an acceptable level.
In her book Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, Alison Matthews David explains that lead was a popular ingredient in cosmetics for centuries “because it made colours even and opaque and created a desirable ‘whiteness’ that bespoke both freedom from hard outdoor labour and racial purity”.
In the 1860s, the American face lotion Laird’s “Bloom of Youth or liquid pearl” promised to whiten skin, helping “ladies afflicted with tan, freckles, Rough or Discolored Skin”. The skin lightener, however, contained such a significant amount of lead that it caused “wrist drop”, or radial nerve palsy, in a number of women.
One woman’s hand had become “wasted to a skeleton”, while a St Louis housewife is recorded as dying of lead poisoning after extensive long-term usage of Laird’s and a home-made preparation containing “white flake and glycerine”.