Cosmetics Through History

By PSU EcoMerge Capstone - 3:13 PM



Makeup found in your local drugstores and malls isn't quite as natural as the word cosmetic's Greek origin implies: "of this world or wordily". This description gives an organic notion to the word cosmetic, yet within research and testing it is found that most makeup has had harsh outcomes throughout it's history. Though there might not be noticeable changes, some ingredients in makeup products have negative affects on the human body. 

The world of cosmetics began with the ancient Egyptians who began using kohl, made from a lead ore (black galena), in which they created a staple dark-eyed look in history, an "eyeliner" aesthetic. Another popular look  for the Egyptians was applying white lead all over their faces, which also led to the first makeup usage in Greek and Rome. The application of both of these makeup creations held many dangers for those wearing it, beginning with mild lead poisoning causing headaches and vomiting. In severe cases, there were some fatal consequences, some went insane, and others became paralyzed. Lead paint was another key ingredient leading into the 16th-Century makeup fad. Many women including Helen Reynolds and Queen Elizabeth I whitened their skin with a layer of lead paint, which was toxic and lead to disfigurement. As a famous style setter in Europe, Queen Elizabeth also shared another trend of using eyedrops to enlarge her pupils and make her eyes look brighter. These eyedrops became highly dangerous as they were made from a poisonous deadly nightshade plant. The dangers of makeup seemed to be repetitive as time went on.


In the 1930's, there was a mascara product made with synthetic aniline dye, which wasn't being sold very long before it was seized for causing blindness and even death. One fad in particularly scary was a method of "blush" used on cheeks and often the lips, which led to easy ingestion of the poisonous red sulfide of mercury of which it was made. This poisonous sulfide had the power of transferring to an unborn fetus in a woman, attributing to many still births, miscarriages, and deformities. For the larger part of it's history, cosmetics were homemade not really knowing what would be safe for consumers. This doesn't mean products today are safe for consumers, either.

Lipstick in the last 5 years is still found to contain a detectable amount of led, as shown in The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics's study in Fall of 2007. In the study, 33 lipsticks were tested, and 61% of those lipsticks contained lead. "Lead is a neurotoxin that accumulates in the body over time, which is why tiny amounts ingested regularly could be hazardous" spokeswoman Stacy Malkan of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics talks about the subtle danger everyday usage can lead to. Mercury is another preservative found in few cosmetics today, including mascara, which is a potent neurotoxin that can cause brain damage in a developing fetus. Other products, for instance hair straightening treatments, contains a carcinogen called formaldehyde. Unfortunately beauty products today don't have to get FDA approval before being sold, leaving people to make their own choices on what they find dangerous for themselves. 

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