• I was riveted by a recent article in Time magazine—as were millions of other women. In bullet points, it described the largely unsung use of toxic ingredients in modern cosmetics, citing a new book on the subject, called No More Dirty Looks by Siobhan O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt ((“About Face,” Time July 19, 2010, p. 45. Also http://wellness.blogs.time.com/2010/08/13/the-dangers-that-lurk-in-your-make-up-bag/)
• Among other revelations, these journalists found that today’s mascara may contain coal tar, a carcinogen; sunscreen ingredients may include oxybenzone, a hormone disrupter; and lipsticks may include possible carcinogens and lead as well.
• Once again, it goes to show that human beings have short memories (and few ethics) when it comes to history lessons learned.
• You see, the long and deadly road to female beauty aids had its start thousands of years ago, in ancient Egypt and Rome. In my most recent nonfiction, I explored that road—only to find that not only were cosmetics users at high risk themselves—they inflicted dreadful damage on their unborn children. (I call it “slow-motion toxification.” Why? Because long-ago women’s consumption of lead via food, drink, medications, and other routes traveled easily through the placenta, causing miscarriages, birth defects, mental retardation, and brain damage.)
• Historians never tire of arguing why the Roman Empire crumbled—but few indeed have taken note of the role that toxic cosmetics may have played. Read on for some disquieting news, excerpted from my book, How to Mellify a Corpse. (The “corpse” part as it may have applied to long-ago makeup wearers is merely an eerie coincidence. I think…)
• “Drop-dead beauty—that’s what the affluent Roman matron sought. Given the near-lethal cosmetics she used to get it, the drop-dead part was almost literal. Gone were the classic Greek days of demure. Everyone wanted smooth pale skin, flashing eyes, and ruby lips.
• In ancient times, cold cream was about the only beauty aid that didn’t actively poison its users. The Greeks favored a krinos-lily unguent made in the flower-growing town of Chaeronea. Much later, Roman author Galen dreamed up a concoction of rosebuds steeped in a 1-to-3 ratio of wax and lanolin.
• Skin peels were popular, too: just apply white lead and sublimate of mercury and watch two ugly layers of epidermis slough off! Thanks to earlier Egyptian herbalists, the Greeks and Romans also knew how to mix animal fat with lead salts to make lead soap.
• Onto clean faces, women buffed quantities of white face powder. The most popular—and deadly—was made of pure lead carbonate (we know this because toxic leftovers have been found at various archaeological sites). Elite Roman gals demanded an expensive powder made from the white excrement of crocodiles.
If croc supplies ran low, they used a dusting of arsenic.
• Both lips and cheeks got generous applications of rouge. The base mix included harmless ingredients such as mulberry, lichen, and seaweed. In order to achieve that desirable scarlet color, however, nothing could match minium, cinnabar, or vermillion. A type of red lead, minium these days is usually found in batteries and rustproof paint. Cinnabar contained 86 percent mercury; vermillion was refined from raw cinnabar.
• Reading these ingredients, it’s easy to feel superior to the fashion-mad women of two thousand years ago, who unknowingly chose toxins rather than ghastly pale lips.The ugly truth? The issue is still with us.
• A 2007 product test by the Commission for Safe Cosmetics revealed that one-third of U.S.-made bright red lipsticks tested contained unacceptable levels of lead. None listed lead as an ingredient. Like cinnabar, lead does not belong on lips. Or in stomachs. During a lifetime of daily lipstick wearing, a woman swallows an amazing amount of lipstick—for pounds, on average.
• The eye makeup used long ago presented similar problems; galena, the nature ore of lead, was the standard eyeliner.
• Beauty regimens—they’ve always been hell. And hell on women’s health and future generations, too.”
(Excerpted from How to Mellify a Corpse by Vicki Leon, published by Walker Books 2010. For permission to reuse, please contact the author via her blog or facebook account.)