16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History

16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History

Trista - October 8, 2018

16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History
A photograph of a radium dial painter. The Spectator.

10. Radioactive Radium Nail Polish

One of the many tragedies of the 20th century was the treatment of the Radium Girls, from the cover-up of the evidence of cancer to the drawn-out lawsuits that were necessary to provide justice to the girls sickened and killed by the industrial use of radium paints. The Radium Girls suffered from incredibly painful illnesses and deaths from anemia and disfiguring osteosarcomas. Many of the girls had to watch their mouths and jaws rot away from the constant exposure to the paint from sharpening the brush tips with their mouths.

Despite the evidence that radium corporations had at the time, radium was still heralded as borderline miraculous in the early 20th century. Some drew biblical analogies to its magical glow, while others believed it was a panacea. The working class girls hired to staff the watch dial factories were the envies of their towns, with some wealthy girls even applying to work for a day or two to be part of the magical scene and gain exposure to the wonder of radium.

A typical behavior among the young women in the factories was playing with the radium. While this is horrifying to think about now, these women had been told the radium was completely safe. Before significant dates on Friday nights, many of the Radium Girls would paint their fingernails or even their lips with radium paint so they would have brightly glowing nails and makeup. Their clothes also glimmered from the radium dust they picked up on the shop floor. Tragically, very few of those girls survived past their 20s or 30s.

16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History
A photograph of a chunk of preserved whey pickled whale blubber. Wikimedia.

11. Whale Grease Lipstick

If Cochineal beetles weren’t gross enough, let’s talk about whale blubber on your lips. Whale blubber was a common emulsifier — a fat used to help spread pigment — all the way into the 1970s. Whale blubber was widely used in the beauty industry for centuries, in everything from soaps to lipstick. One whale has a great deal of fat on its body, so whaling was an efficient way of gathering vast quantities of high-quality fat. However, in modern times women were appalled when they learned that whales were being harvested for cosmetics.

Despite whaling being strictly limited now and cheaper and easier plant-based emulsifiers being found, the urban legend of whale blubber in lipsticks continues today. Whale blubber is not used in any cosmetics, even those that are not vegan nor cruelty-free. It is much cheaper, and more ethical, for companies to use plant-based compounds like beeswax, cocoa butter, lanolin and oils like jojoba, maracuja or argan as emulsifiers.

While no longer used in cosmetics, blubber is still of extremely high value to some indigenous peoples like the Inuit. Whales can have as much as 50% of their total body weight in fat, which serves as an extremely calorie dense food source, which is vital for survival in the cold climate of the Inuit lands. It also contains Vitamin D, which is essential to prevent rickets in cold areas with limited sunlight.

16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History
A photograph of a deadly nightshade bush. Wikimedia.

12. Deadly Nightshade Eye Drops

The scientific name of Deadly Nightshade, Atropa belladonna, is proof of its widespread use as a beauty product. Belladonna, in Italian, means beautiful woman and became attached to the plant due to the trend of Italian renaissance women using eye drops concocted from nightshade to dilate their pupils, as wide doe-like eyes were a prized beauty ideal of the era.

Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants in the eastern hemisphere. Ingesting the plant, especially the root, can cause heart disease, mental illness, spontaneous abortion and more. Children are especially at risk from Belladonna poisoning due to the attractive appearance of the dark-purple berries and the fact that, unlike most poisonous berries, they actually do taste quite sweet and pleasant.

The roots have the highest concentration of the toxic alkaloids that make the plant deadly, but every part of the plant is poisonous to varying degrees. Prolonged use of the eye drops would have caused visual disturbances, inability to focus the eyes, increased heart rate, and eventually blindness with enough use. This product is one cosmetic you may well have used yourself at one point though, as a safer more refined version is still used today to dilate pupils during eye exams.

16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History
A photograph of a silent movie era actress with eyelash beads. Business Insider UK.

13. Molten Wax Eyelash Beads

Aside from one extraordinary period in the middle ages when women plucked their eyelashes out, long eyelashes have been valued as a symbol of feminine beauty and alluring eyes. Stage and silent film actresses especially wanted long, dark and noticeable eyelashes for their performances. With false eyelashes not being invented until well into the 20th century, earlier women had to get creative to highlight their lashes.

Solid mascaras have existed for at least a century, with early versions featuring a kohl-like powder that was brushed onto the lashes with a dampened bristle brush. However, as we all know, mascara cannot, despite advertisements to the contrary, cannot replicate the effect of false eyelashes. Even after false eyelashes were invented, the high-cost animal hair lashes were still out of reach for many entertainers.

The solution women found in the early 20th century was applying molten wax to their eyelashes. Unsurprisingly, using droplets of hot wax near incredibly delicate human eyes wasn’t the safest idea, and many women suffered minor burns with one woman famously catching on fire after the wax ignited her clothing. The effect was quite glamorous though, with every single eyelash bearing a tiny bead on the tip.

16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History
A volunteer holds a bouquet of beets harvested from the Department of Agriculture’s People’s Garden on Friday, May 28, 2010. USDA. Wikimedia.

14. Beet Juice Rouge

The reaction to this product may vary based on how disgusted one is by sweet root vegetables. This product persisted well into the 20th century and was not widely replayed until cosmetic prices became affordable to the average woman. Many different staining agents were used as makeup in times before cosmetics were invented and especially in eras where makeup, even when it existed, was frowned upon and connected to both the stage and the brothel.

If you have eaten cooked or pickled beets, you likely know just how stained they are. Beets are rich in betalains, which give them their beautiful purple-red coloring, and made them ideal for use in cosmetics. A light dab of beet juice would leave a lovely reddish flush and be often used on both the cheeks and lips before makeup was widely available and accepted.

One unique factor about beetroot juice was its availability to women of all social classes. Root vegetables were once strongly associated with underclasses and were considered peasant food. Even isolated rural women who were survival farming would likely have had access to at least a small amount of excess beet juice that could be used cosmetically. Whether or not a peasant woman would have had the time for such matters is another question entirely.

16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History
A French illustration of the locations of beauty patches and their meaning. Beautiful with Brains.

15. Silk Moles

When one considers of supreme beauty, one surely thinks of large shapes cut out of silk glued to the face in patterns. No? Well, to the French aristocracy in the 16th century, not only were such patches the height of beauty but they also communicated a variety of moods and stats based on their placement on the face. Expensive fabrics like silk and velvet were most prized and were often cut into fanciful shapes like hearts or stars.

Despite the association with beauty, the French named the patches in as gross of a manner as possible, calling them mouches for “flies” since the patches appeared as though a fly had settled on the face. The placement of the “flies” carried significant meanings, with illustrations being created to decode the secret language of facial patches among the aristocracy.

While the marks were fanciful ways of amplifying makeup looks, they also served a much more functional and sad purpose. Smallpox was still widespread in the 16th century, and even among the nobility, many people’s faces were ravaged by smallpox scars. Large fabric cutouts allowed people to hide the worst of their injuries under the opaque fabric, giving the appearance of brighter and healthier skin. The fixation on covering smallpox scars contributed to the ravages of lead makeup use two centuries later, also in France.

16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History
Jar of Solid Gold Animal Skin Cream. Amazon.com.

16. Animal Fat Skin Cream

Nothing says healthy skin like slathering the soon-to-be-rancid fat of dead animals all over your face. Animal fats were, for many centuries, far easier to process and obtain than plant-based oils. Blubber and lard were both prized for salves and creams for the hands and face. A pot of ancient skin cream created by the Romans and dated to the 2nd century B.C. was found during an archaeological excavation and dubbed the “Londinium cream.”

Upon testing, the Londinium cream was found to be mostly animal fat, likely cattle, held together with starches that were likely created by boiling starchy roots in water. Tin dioxide was also observed. A team re-engineered the cream and found that it was greasy at first, due to the cattle fat, but the starches gave it a nice finish. It seems the Romans had remarkably good taste in the creation of skin cream, especially given the limited tools and products they had to work with during that time.

Thankfully, especially for vegans and vegetarians, skin creams today are primarily comprised of a wide array of plant-based oils including grapeseed, avocado, coconut, maracuja, argan, jojoba, and more. While animal-based fats can be useful, their tendency towards rancidity does not make them as effective as the more stable plant-based products.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“10 Gross Cosmetic Products Of The Past” Marie Swan, Listverse. August 2018.

“9 Beauty Trends From History: The Weird, The Gross, And The Dangerous” Olivia Harrison, Bust. n.d.

“6 Practical Ways Romans Used Human Urine and Feces in Daily Life” Kristina Kilgrove, Mental Floss. March 2016.

“Ancient Roman cosmetics: Skin cream from the 2nd century A.D.” Sarah Everts, Chemical & Engineering News. January 2013.

“Suffering for beauty has ancient roots” Diane Mapes, MSNBC. January 2008.

“ON EGNATIUS OF THE WHITE TEETH” Catullus. Tufts University archives.