Skip to content

6 Beauty Trends That Blinded, Poisoned, and Killed Thousands of People | by Alema Ljuca | Mar, 2022

The price of beauty throughout history.

“La Calavera Catrina” by José Guadalupe Posada — it represents death personified (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

B.B.eauty has always had a price. Whether it is spending money on products, enduring uncomfortable treatments, or spending time making up your face, certain sacrifices are accepted to achieve the desired look.

However, in the past, as new beauty products were introduced to the market, more serious side effects entered the scene. These six beauty trends blinded, poisoned, and killed thousands of people.

Advertisement for “Arsenic Complexion Wafers,” The Helena Independent Newspaper, November 9, 1889 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the 19th-century, women desired pale, almost translucent skin. One popular way in which they achieved that look was by chewing small arsenic wafers throughout the day. the “Complexion Wafers” were sold in all bigger pharmacies at a price of 1–2 US Dollars.

In addition to making the complexion pale, the wafers were also said to remove spots, moles, freckles, and any unevenness in the skin tone. They were also advertised as “perfectly harmless.” Needless to say, thousands of women experienced arsenic poisoning, which resulted in vomiting, severe abdominal pain, bloody stools, heart disease, and cancer.

A homeopathic preparation of belladonna (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In Renaissance Italy, one of the most alluring and desirable looks on a woman were large pupils and glassy eyes. Eye drops from a particular plant called “Belladonna” were crucial for achieving that look.

Belladonna, which translates to “beautiful woman,” is a highly toxic plant (even when used in small doses). As the main ingredient of the famous “Belladonna eye drops,” it caused blurred vision, skin irritation, hallucinations, heart problems, and even blindness. The dangerous plant is also called “The Deadly Nightshades” and was used as a poison in Ancient Rome.

Permanent waving machine by Icall Limited, 1934 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

During the 19th and 20th centuries, soft waves were immensely popular. As the demand for more innovative ways to achieve the desired look grew, permanent waving machines were introduced to the market.

The first permanent waving machine was invented by hairdresser Eugene Suter and electrician Isidoro Calvete in 1917. It consisted of 22 heaters that were hanging from a tall structure, under which women would sit for 5 to 10 hours.

However, as with many brand new inventions, there were problems and accidents with this machine. The customers would often experience electric shocks, bald spots, and burns that were sometimes so severe the woman ended up dying.

Advertisement for tapeworm weight loss pills, early 1900s (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

During the 1900s, tapeworm diets were the hottest new trend. Tapeworm pills were advertised as “friends for a fair form,” and it was claimed they had no ill effects. The author of “Calories & Corsets: A History of Dieting over 2000 Years,” Louise Foxcroft wrote the following:

“Dieters would swallow beef tapeworm cysts, usually in the form of a pill. The theory was that the tapeworms would reach maturity in the intestines and absorb food. This could cause weight loss, along with diarrhea and vomiting.”

When the patient achieved the desired look, the tapeworm had to be extracted. The most popular ways to do so were unsafe pills and to “lure the tapeworm by inserting a cylinder with food via the digestive tract.” Countless patients choked to death on the cylinder during the “procedure.”

Advertisement for the X-ray hair removal system “Tricho” (Public Domain)

When in 1896, the first X-rays were discovered, beauticians almost immediately started using them for hair removal. One of the pioneers of X-ray hair removal was Albert Geyser, who created the “Tricho” machine. The machine removed women’s facial hair in only four minutes.

However, within months, clients were coming back with ulcers and atrophy. And by 1970, one in three women suffering from radiation-induced cancer was connected to X-ray hair removal. One Tricho patient wrote the following:

“…within the last few years ‘white spots’ have appeared on my chin. This has been… heartbreaking to me… I have been wondering if there might possibly be some new medical discovery which might help me.”

Advertisement for “Radior Cosmetics” which contained radium, November 10, 1918 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

When Marie Curie discovered radium, the harmful effects of the substance were not known. In fact, radium was seen as a miracle ingredient and was used in makeup powders, soaps, creams, and even energy drinks. A 1915 advertisement claimed the following:

“If placed on the face where the skin has become wrinkled or tired the radio-active forces immediately take effect on the nerves and tissues. A continuous steady current of energy flows into the skin, and before long the wrinkles have disappeared.”

The extensive use of radium poisoned and caused cancer in thousands of men and women. Many died from the consequences, and one of the most famous cases was the athlete Eben Byers. Byers drank three bottles of the radium energy drink “Radithor” a day which caused his jaw to literally come off.