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Why Did People Willingly Consume Arsenic into the 20th Century?

Published Feb 21, 2024
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The cosmetics industry of the Victorian era didn’t have a great safety record, despite dubious advertisements and labels claiming otherwise. In fact, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, numerous beauty products marketed to women contained arsenic, yet they were explicitly advertised as being safe.

Among the most popular of the era were “Dr. Campbell’s Safe Arsenic Complexion Wafers” and “Fould’s Medicated Complexion Soap." These products claimed to have the ability to turn sallow skin “radiant,” remove pimples and freckles, and make the young ladies who used them “adorable.” Arsenic wafers were supposed to make one's skin pale, in line with a widespread beauty trend. Avoiding any kind of tan implied that one was privileged enough to have never worked out in the sun.

A similar product listed in the 1902 Sears Roebuck catalog called “Dr. Rose’s French Arsenic Complexion Wafers” went even further, claiming that by consuming the correct amount of the wafers, “even the coarsest and most repulsive skin and complexion (…) slowly changes into an unrivaled purity of texture.” Of course, the product was also described as “perfectly harmless,” with “all danger (…) averted.”

While arsenic can be tolerated in very small amounts, long-term exposure can cause a variety of health conditions. Kidney and heart problems, hair loss, skin issues, abnormal growths, and nervous system complications are just a few of the many unpleasant maladies associated with consuming or being exposed to arsenic. Yet even though many people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were aware of how toxic and potentially addictive arsenic was, they seem to have been won over by the promise of “safe" and “harmless” arsenic for skin lightening.

Arsenic was far from the only harmful ingredient in cosmetics during this era. Lead was also a key component in face-whitening products. Vermillion, or “red mercury," was commonly used in lip tint. And beyond cosmetics, other beauty practices put women’s health at risk. Corsets, for example, were worn so tightly that they caused deformities. Tapeworms were consumed to promote weight loss. Belladonna drops, which could cause blindness, were used to achieve the popular look of glistening eyes.

Dying to be beautiful:

  • Maria Gunning, the Countess of Coventry, famously died of lead poisoning in 1760 at the age of 28, having frequently used beauty products containing lead and mercury to whiten her skin.

  • Radioactive soaps, creams, and other beauty products that claimed to revitalize the skin were sold in the 1920s and 1930s and sometimes resulted in radiation sickness, cancer, or even death.

  • While some countries have banned cosmetics containing mercury, minuscule amounts are still allowed in eye products and other cosmetics in the United States.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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