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Young Woman Powdering Her Face, 1877 Giclee Print

Young Woman Powdering Her Face by Berthe Morisot, 1877

We have heard time and time again of the horrors of the past and its application of lethal chemicals on the body in the name of Beauty and skincare. Oh, sure, it is easy to be aghast and wonder what the world was thinking. In short, “they did not know.” Beauty lotions and potions were not rigorously tested as they are today, even more difficult was the concept different people react differently to the same chemical for an infinite number of reasons (as the case is in Modern times, as well.)

Likewise it should come as no surprise Soap was viewed as a queer thing. A heavily perfumed luxury, and I do mean heavily perfumed! Given the average person in the 19th century bathed so infrequently. The more wealthy could possibly wash once a week since they had the means; it does not mean they did however. The perfume soap was meant to linger for days and squelch the body odor.

Americans took to soap like fish to water after it became widely available. The English can be rather obstinate at times and continued their less frequent routines. There are diary entries of English girls who boasted “no water has ever touched her face” and yet it was clean and fresh as any well-bred girl. How?? Ammonia, bleach, glycerin, or witch hazel. . . Be careful here. Glycerin and witch hazel are found in current beauty products. Witch hazel is a natural astringent. Ammonia is not for topical use! It is lethal! It can lead to lung and eye damage from the fumes. If you are mentally trying to place ammonia; have you ever been in a beauty salon and some gal is getting her hair curled into a permanent and your eyes sting and your nose wrinkles? Yes, that would be the ammonia. It goes without saying (I hope!) not to make contact with bleach and your epidermis.

The most common ingredients in face powder were led and mercury. Again, the people did not know of its side effects. If any beauty treatment was meticulously studied, it was not over a life time of use on the subject. Some thought the poc marks, headaches, anemia (which in this case it was not viewed as a bad thing), coma, death, and other ailments. You see, everyone in history was sick, ill, and dying of something or other. The cause of ailments and death varied so greatly, who was to tell it was the beauty powder and not the dog bite? Or the soap and not the wallpaper? If it was not one thing it was certainly another. The reality is any 19th century individual was exposed to an alarming rate of poisonous chemicals from cradle to the grave on a daily basis from sun up to sun down. If anything, it is a wonder how any of them survived!!!

Arsenic Complexion Wafers was a real product that delivered its promise of the much desired pale visage. Arsenic causes anemia, which in laymen’s terms is the deprivation of oxygen in the red blood cells. Women were instructed to eat one or two wafers a day to achieve alabaster skin. Oxygen deprivation to the lungs and other vital organs caused faintness (which was actually desired during the 19th century) and death; not so desirable.

Nitric oxide and lampblack were used in lieu of kohl to line the eyebrows and later, the eyes. Nitric oxide?! Really?!? Then again, studies have shown time and time again, Modern make up is not natural and particularly safe either. They have been improvements. I mean, we worked away from nitric oxide and lamp black, but in the Modern make up caboodle, the lipstick is the deadliest thing on your face and ironically the wearers “spread it” with kisses. Talk about the kiss of death?! I have not researched the death rate by prolong exposures to lipstick. Just think of it, your grand children or great grand children are going to be equally mystified why we Moderns used certain deadly chemicals directly on our skin . . . and what excuse could we provide them?