Knowledge Bombs

One Victorian era beauty regimen was to apply skin products containing arsenic to achieve a pale complexion. Long-term arsenic exposure caused vitiligo (skin pigment loss) along with nervous system and kidney damage. ‘Arsenic baths’ was also recommended for “transparent whiteness” in Bohemia.

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One Victorian era beauty regimen was to apply skin products containing arsenic to achieve a pale complexion. Long-term arsenic exposure caused vitiligo (skin pigment loss) along with nervous system and kidney damage. ‘Arsenic baths’ was also recommended for “transparent whiteness” in Bohemia.

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  1. [https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-poisonous-beauty-advice-columns-of-victorian-england](https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-poisonous-beauty-advice-columns-of-victorian-england)

    Excerpt:

    Victorian beauty ideals were unsurprisingly obsessed with pallor: upper class white women chased even whiter skin, a symbol that their privilege never left them working in the sun. “It was all about how to make your skin more translucent,” says Alexis Karl, a perfumer and lecturer who has researched Victorian cosmetics extensively.

    There were two dominant makeup styles in the 1800s: “natural” and “painted.” The ideals of “natural” skin care conjured images of the “English Rose”; a wholesomely beautiful woman with good morals, but Karl notes “it was understood that there was a lot of artifice going on.” The “painted” beauty regime was seen as a bit risqué; these women were not hiding their artifice nor their desire to be beautiful.

    Similar to the “no-makeup makeup” trend that exists today, the natural look was often achieved through unnatural preparations, many of them homemade. Modern beauty practices belie the roots of current ideals: a chemical called Taraxacum is suggested as a sort of 1800s chemical peel by Powers, who says “the compress acts like a mild but imperceptible blister, and leaves a new skin, soft as an infant’s.

    ”To keep the face fresh, she advises coating the face with opium overnight, followed by a brisk wash of ammonia in the morning. For the woman with sparse eyebrows and eyelashes, mercury was often recommended as a nightly eye treatment, eradicating the need to use heavy makeup. “The look of the consumptive was very desirable: the woman with the watery eyes and pale skin, which of course was from the cadaver in the throes of death,” says Karl.

    To get this near-death look, women would squeeze a few drops citrus juice or perfume into their eyes, or reach for some belladonna drops, which lasted longer, but also caused blindness. Pale skin was encouraged with veils, gloves and parasols, but could also be bought: Sears & Roebuck sold a popular product called Dr. Rose’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers, which were just that–little white chalk wafers filled with arsenic for delicate nibbling. They were specifically advertised as “perfectly harmless.”

    Arsenic, a natural metalloid found in the earth’s crust, is an extremely toxic compound that can be tolerated for a time when eaten in small amounts (and has occasionally been used in medicine). Long-term exposure, however, is extremely unpleasant: nervous system and kidney damage, hair loss, conjunctivitis and growths called arsenical keratoses plague the body along with, yes, vitiligo, which causes pigment loss in the skin. Arsenic, which became addictive as a person’s tolerance built, was used in as many forms as possible.

    Lola Montez, a Victorian actress and traveling beauty writer, wrote in her book The Arts of Beauty about how women in Bohemia (now a part of the Czech Republic) regularly bathed in arsenic springs, “which gave their skins a transparent whiteness.” She also warned of the price: “once they habituate themselves to the practice, they are obliged to keep it up the rest of their days, or death would speedily follow.”

    Though beauty-related deaths were not always reported as arsenic poisoning, it wasn’t that Victorian women didn’t know arsenic was toxic or addictive. It was not uncommon for it to be used as a poison by murderesses of the era, and by the late 1800s arsenic was known to be a dangerous ingredient when used in dyes and wallpaper. The use of arsenic in small quantities for skin lightening was considered so effective that it continued for decades.