By Jean Balchin 12/01/2018

It wasn’t until I felt the sharp sting of lemon juice trickling down into my eye made me realise I had made a terrible mistake. Inelegantly slumped over the bathroom sink, I squinted through my tears at the woebegone girl in the mirror and vowed never to bleach my freckles again.

Although only twelve years old, I had joined the elusive quest for beauty – a desire that has plagued humanity for millennia – ever since the first caveperson spied their prickly visage in a calm pool. From cramping corsets to the slitting and silicon-enhancing of breasts, there have been millions who would avert the inevitable threat of old age and physical deterioration – the “hideous winter”, to quote Shakespeare. Socially constructed concepts of superficial beauty have lead do horrible things to themselves for as long as society has existed.

A Fountain of Youth?

Physical beauty is often equated with youth. It’s no wonder then that the search for a fountain of youth occurs frequently within a variety of cultural narratives. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, there existed a fountain in the land of the Macrobians, which imparted super-human life spans to those who drank from it. Alexander the Great was transfixed with the idea of a fountain of youth, travelling over a mythical land called the Land of Darkness to reach it. As the fingers of European colonialism began to grasp the globe, the New World of the Americas was touted as prime location for the fountain of eternal youth. It was the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon whose name became inextricably linked with the legend of this fountain. In 1513, Ponce de Leon led the first European expeditions into Florida, a land of many natural springs. Despite being there in an official capacity to find lost gold and claim land for Spain, Ponce de Leon often set off hunting for the Fountain —he never succeeded in finding it. Given the impracticality of mustering search parties for the mythical fountain of youth, humankind has turned to many weird, wacky and downright dangerous procedures. Fortified with a number of hearty gin and tonics, I decided to examine the quackery of ancient beauty practices.

White Lead Powder

Despite living in the Age of ‘Enlightenment’, there was nothing Elizabethan aristocrats loved more than smearing a mixture of white lead, calcium carbonate and hydroxide all over their faces. White skin was favoured as it denoted wealth and power, as opposed to the tan acquired from hours of arduous labour in the sun. This powder was also handy in covering unsightly blemishes caused by syphilis, which ran rampant throughout the kingdom. Although this powder helped men and women achieve the ghostly pallor of a week-old corpse, it also caused a number of awful, excruciating side effects, from skin inflammation to baldness. In addition to these toxic facemasks, a certain cadaverous hue could be acquired by controlled bleeding wherein one drained the ruddy glow of life from the body, drop by drop. Lead sulphate was also used to remove their freckles — thank goodness my twelve-year-old self didn’t have access to such a poisonous substance. 

That powdery, white look!


Tasty, tasty arsenic

You thought lead powder was bad? Try eating rat poison. One out-dated beauty practice was the ingestion of arsenic to

“produce a blooming complexion, a brilliant eye, and an appearance of embonpoint [sexy fleshiness].”

This practice originated in southeast Austria, where during the 19th century, travellers and scientists reported the local consumption of ‘ratsbane’ with their coffee. Arsenic eating began with the consumption of a single grain at a time, until one built up a slight tolerance. Dependency soon followed, and the consequences of withdrawal included indigestion, anxiety, loss of appetite, spasmodic pain, vomiting and constipation. Arsenic also causes goitres (enlargement of the thyroid gland on the neck) — not exactly the blooming, brilliant swelling one might have hoped for. 

Physicians and chemists soon caught whiff of this ‘beauty regime’ and in 1901, the British Medical Journal claimed that:

“It is a matter of common knowledge that arsenic and its salts exhibited for a time in small doses establish a tolerance, and the arsenic eaters of the Austrian Tyrol are classical proofs of the fact.”

These ‘scientific’ claims lent validity to the use of arsenic in medicines and cosmetics. The most popular of these compounds was Fowler’s Solution, a preparation used since 1786 for its properties as a tonic and stimulant. With the publication of works such as The Chemistry of Common Life by James Johnson, romantic accounts of the beautifying effects of arsenic soon had women flocking in the thousands to chemists and department stores. Many new products flooded the market, from Dr Campbell’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers to Sulphide of Arsenicum (“the sure way to a better complexion”). External application of arsenic constricted capillaries in the face, enabling one to achieve the anaemic pallor so favoured by the Elizabethans. Arsenic eating continued into the 20th century, until investigators realised that it probably wasn’t the best idea. It’s all vitality and sparkles until someone’s throat swells up to bullfrog proportions. 

Urine mouthwash

Quite apart from arsenic and the odd dusting of lead powder, another whitening method employed by humans in the past was urine —specifically, Portuguese urine. In Ancient Rome, Portuguese urine was considered superior to the local piss, and was used by both men and women to whiten teeth. All things considered, this beauty hack isn’t that harmful – the ammonia in urine is actually a rather good disinfection. Indeed, urine was an important ingredient in mouthwash until at least the eighteenth century. Worried your Listerine might give you oral cancer? Why not pee in a cup and swill that around in your mouth?


In keeping with this long tradition of using poisons for beautifying purposes, back in the day women would use drops prepared from the belladonna plant to dilate their pupils. Belladonna (Italian for beautiful lady) acts as a muscarinic antagonist, blocking receptors in the eye muscles that constrict pupil size. In addition to seductively dilated pupils, recipients of belladonna sometimes had trouble focusing their eyes, suffered visual distortion, increased heart rate —and in cases of prolonged use, blindness. Hey, at least you’d still be pretty— even if you couldn’t see for yourself. 

Atropa belladonna. Wikimedia Commons.


You’d have thought we would have learned from the death and decay of lead face powder —but no, in the 1930s, a popular beauty trend included products made with Radium. I’m no Albert Einstein, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that slathering your face with radioactive elements is not the best idea. Tho-Radia – containing thorium chloride and radium bromide – was marketed with the name Curie. Dr Alfred Curie was of no relation to Marie and Piere Curie who devoted their lives to pioneering radioactive research – Alfred was not going to miss out on a chance to capitalise on their name. Tho-Radia claimed to

“Stimulate cellular vitality, activate circulation, firm skin, eliminate fats, stop enlarged pores forming, prevent and cure boils, pimples, redness, pigmentation, protect from the elements, stop ageing and get rid of wrinkles, conserve the freshness and brightness of the complexion.”

Pity it also caused anaemia, bone fractures and necrosis of the jaw. 


Moving on from terrifying skin lightening methods, I decided to investigate fad diets of yesteryear. One particularly horrifying beauty regime I happened to come across was the “tapeworm diet” wherein one swallowed a pill containing ‘sanitized’ tapeworm larvae. The resident worms would secrete proteins into the intestinal tract, rendering the digestion of food much less efficient. Popular in England during the nineteenth century, this diet was arguably effective —that is, if you didn’t mind harbouring a 20-foot long pet parasite in your gut. 

Foot binding

Societal pressure to conform to a certain look occurs within all cultures over the globe. Undeniably, humans tend to be visual creatures – don’t ever underestimate the value of a good first impression. One particularly grisly practice in recent history is the Chinese custom of foot binding. This ritual began in a girl’s life at around the age of 4, where all her toes (save the big ones) were broken and bent under the foot. The mutilated feet were then bound tightly to prevent them from growing to normal size. These ‘lotus feet’ were considered highly erotic —indeed, a Qing Dynasty sex manual lists 48 different ways of playing with women’s bound feet. Foot binding was a popular means of displaying status as they indicated the woman in question did not need their feet to work. This limited mobility also severely restricted a woman’s ability to take part in politics, social life or indeed anything outside the domestic sphere. Moreover, saprobic microorganisms and various other creepy crawlies would colonise the unwashable folds of the feet, causing them to stink. Try that for a foot fetish!

X-ray of bound feet, China. Wikimedia Commons.

When I was a moody fifteen-year-old, I desperately wanted a lip piercing. However I wasn’t prepared to take this practice to the next level —by stretching out my lip with a plate or plug. The process of stretching a lip through piercing is maintained by various groups around the Amazon River in South America and Africa. Given that the weight of large ornaments (called labrets) can be incredibly painful, young people usually only wear them during ceremonies, leaving the stretched lip to hang down around the neck during everyday life. If stringy lips aren’t your thing, how about stretched necks? Subcultures in Africa and Asia consider long necks so erotic that women wear multiple brass rings around the neck to stretch it out. While these coils can be removed, the neck muscles will have atrophied and will no longer be capable of supporting the head, causing the woman to asphyxiate. 

While researching these beauty practices of yesteryear, I found myself growing increasingly smug. You wouldn’t catch me powdering my face with lead, or nibbling on arsenic. And as for gargling urine? Please. I then caught a glimpse of myself in my bedroom mirror. Unnaturally red hair, eyebrows plucked to near —extinction and a thick layer of God-knows— what disguising my freckles. Who was I kidding? When it comes to being beautiful at any cost, values haven’t changed much. From stem cell research to bird poop facials, antiaging is still an increasingly lucrative field of medicine. That’s not to mention the chemical peels that literally burn layers of skin off one’s face, flappable butt implants or the appetite suppressants that cause heart attacks. At the risk of carping on, let me inform you of a certain pedicure technique where beauty seekers dunk their feet in a tub of voracious nibbling tiny fish. Sure, you might catch some disease from the person next to you, but hey, at least you’ll have lovely soft feet! 


Botox is a substance injected under the skin to smooth out wrinkles, while sometimes leaving the recipient incapable of registering emotion. You may look younger, but your face could resemble a waxwork figure from Madam Tussads. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but pumping oneself full of botulinum toxin can also cause nausea, respiratory infections, forehead and eyelid drooping and flu-like symptoms. Almost on par with the lead face powder and arsenic body butter is bee venom cream – advertised as the ‘safer’ version of botox. The venom is harvested via a process wherein a slight electric current is run through a pane of glass, causing bees on the glass to sting. Manufacturers of the cream claim that it induces a reaction in the skin that causes the body to believe it has been stung, increasing blood flow and collagen to the area. Obviously, anyone even slightly allergic to beestings should stay far away —anaphylactic shock is not sexy. Just thinking about the careful slicing and insertion of collagen, the sucking of fat out of the body and the stretching of skin makes me wince slightly. As with any kind of surgery, complications with liposuction can occur —including blood clotting, fluid loss, and infections.

After researching all these perfectly horrendous beauty practices, I was left feeling rather bewildered and confused. Humanity has long been plagued by a desire to prolong life and youth —or at least, the appearance of it. Be it due to fear of death or the desire to look a certain way, this quest for eternal youth and beauty has (frequently and undeniably often hilariously) backfired over the ages. For as long as there have been reflective surfaces, humans have had to contend with the ugly side of beauty. After researching for this article, I began to question my own beauty decisions and in a fit of spontaneous self-righteousness, I threw my eyelash curler out the window. However, I’m soon heading to the bathroom to dye my hair a brilliant, obnoxious red. Even if the hair dye should drip into my eye, I’ll grin and bear it. You know what they say —no pain, no gain.