16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History

16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History

Trista - October 8, 2018

Humans have been painting their faces and trying to enhance their beauty for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians used kohl eyeliner, often made of soot, to line their eyes for both aesthetics and protection from blazing sunlight. Ancient Romans had their own standards of beauty, including a fondness for unibrows that led women to pencil in hairs or even attach animal hair to their faces. The French took toxic beauty standards quite literally in the 18th century, favoring lead and arsenic both of which are deadly poisonous.

16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History
A photograph of a bottle of arsenic. The Guardian.

Throughout history, two elements of beauty have been consistent: gross ingredients and practices. It seems both men and women have always valued beauty strongly enough to go through some genuinely disgusting processes to achieve it.

16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History
A photograph of a large piece of ambergris. Ambergris NZ.

1. Whale Vomit in Perfume

Ambergris has long been used in the finest of perfumes. It created the scent base of some of the world’s most exquisite fragrances. It is said to smell fecal when freshly produced, but it ages into a somewhat sweet earthy smell. Thanks to the controversy of whaling, ambergris has widely been replaced by the synthetic terpenoid ambroxide.

Ambergris is a product of a sperm whale’s digestive tract, hence why it is often jokingly referred to as whale puke. It is theorized that ambergris is produced as a protective substance to coat the sharp beaks of giant squids that have been eaten by the whales. The product can be found in the ocean after having been passed by whales or in the digestive tract of slaughtered whales.

In addition to its use in creating musk based perfumes, ambergris has also been considered an aphrodisiac at different points throughout history and was used as medicine in the middle ages. It was believed to be curative for epilepsy, headaches, colds and other ailments. While ambergris can still be collected and is still used in some extremely high-end perfumes, the sperm whale itself is protected due to its place on the endangered and protected species registry. Unsurprisingly, given its rarity, ambergris is now incredibly expensive.

16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History
An ancient Egyptian statue depicting eyeliner. BBC.

2. Chimney Soot Eyeliner

Black eyeliner has been used since at least the ancient Egyptians, who heavily lined their eyes with kohl to protect their eyes from the bright sun in much the same way athletes now use eyeblack. Cleopatra is often depicted as having harsh and extended black eyeliner, as are the busts of many of the kings of Egypt. It appears that peasants and royalty alike used eyeliner extensively throughout the ancient Egyptian dynasties.

Early eyeliner would likely not have been a substance we would want by our eyes today. Before the invention of refined and stabilized kohl eyeliner, people mixed their concoctions and applied them with metal, bone or wooden spikes that look more like pins than makeup applicators. Again, one marvels at the beauty rituals people engaged in without strong antibiotics available in case of mishaps.

Many vessels for mixing eyeliner have been found in archaeological digs, and it appears that simple solutions of soot or ash were used by those who were not able to make true kohl out of ground stibnite. In later eras, women who could not afford proper eye makeup also turned to soot mixtures stabilized with fat and applied to the eyelashes. These soot mixtures were also often adulterated with toxic compounds, and the fat itself was likely to go rancid quickly without refrigeration.

16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History
A painted portrait of Queen Mary II with ashen skin. Wikimedia.

3. Penciled In Blood Vessels

Lead paint alone was not enough to fulfill the white-skinned beauty obsession of women in the middle ages. To truly achieve the pinnacle of fair-skinned beauty, women wanted their skin to look translucent. Any hint of a tan was a signal that one was a peasant who had to work outside in the fields, so skin utterly devoid of pigment was both a racial signifier of good breeding and a sign of the economic ability to leisure indoors while servants took care of you.

Unless one is dying of tuberculosis or some other chronic disease, it isn’t especially normal to be able to see extensive veining in the neck and chest. So, women turned to artificial means to create the translucent appearance so desired. Blue pencils and ink were used to trace along veins and make them more prominent, or sometimes fabricate them entirely if they weren’t visible.

The combination of lead face painting which would have given a completely flat white affect combined with stark blue ink veins must have led to a rather ghastly appearance in modern eyes. The gruesome combination sounds more like Halloween zombie makeup than the height of beauty, but they would likewise likely be scandalized by our colorful highlighters and eyeshadows today.

16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History
A photograph of the ruins of ancient Roman toilets. Wikimedia.

4. Urine Tooth Whitener

One of the more nauseating beauty practices of the past was collecting fermented animal and even human urine for use in tooth whitening. Urine, when left to ferment for several weeks, produces ammonia. Ammonia is sufficient for many purposes, of which tooth whitening is a more horrifying example. The ancient Romans, in particular, were widely noted for using urine-based tooth whiteners.

Roman author Catullus noted that Romans used both animal and human urine in a mouthwash intended to whiten the teeth. He wrote in praise of urine mouthwash,

“Where man who’s urined therewith loves a-morn
His teeth and ruddy gums to scour and score;
So the more polisht are your teeth, the more
Argue they sipping stale in ampler store.”

It appears the Romans were quite fond of the use of urine-based tooth whitening. They used both urine and feces extensively and let no product go to waste from their system of public toilets.

Urine has long been a valuable product for laundry, gunpowder, and more. Urine from chamber pots was often saved by farm wives to create ammonia for laundry. In the 18th century England, night soil men established a lucrative business of collecting urine for processing into saltpeter for the creation of gunpowder. While we may call them waste products, they are undoubtedly useful, if disgusting.

16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History
A photograph of a cochineal beetle. SnackSafely.

5. Beetle Carapace Lipstick

Red is a dominant color and has been valued throughout history. While the popularity of sporting red lips has varied throughout history, the red lip had a strong resurgence in the early 20th century with flappers. At the time, the most cost-effective method to mass-produce a vibrant red pigment was with the Cochineal beetle. The females of the species gain a red color through their diet of red berries and produce carminic acid when dissolved, which can be refined into the rich ruby pigment carmine.

While the Cochineal beetle was used in the 20h century, it is believed that the practice of using crushed insects for cosmetic pigments dates back to at least ancient Egypt, where Cleopatra is believed to have created her lipsticks using crushed insects. The ancient Egyptians were heavy users of cosmetics for both skin protection and beauty, so it wouldn’t be at all surprising to find they created many of the beauty tricks of later eras.

If the idea of bugs in your makeup grosses you out, you had best start searching for makeup labeled vegan, as Cochineal sourced carmine is still used in non-cruelty-free makeup today. While it is still available, especially overseas, the demand for vegan and cruelty-free makeup products in the United States is proliferating, so bug-based makeup may soon be harder to find.

16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History
Cinnabar in Dolomite. Wikimedia.

6. Deadly Toxic Cinnabar Rouge

While many eras, such as the Victorian, frowned upon makeup and color in the skin in general, our current beauty trends along with several other periods have focused on the idea of healthy, natural beauty which is ideally highlighted with a natural rosy or peachy flush to the cheeks. While today we have access to countless formulations of blush, all of which are tested for safety and many of which are vegan and cruelty-free, women of other eras were not so lucky.

One ancient source of red pigment that was used in both decorating painting and cosmetics was the volcanic ore Cinnabar. Cinnabar is an incredibly toxic ore of mercury, with the chemical composition MgS indicating Mercury and Sulfur. It was also the most popular historical source of the red pigment called vermillion. Mercury Sulfide, the scientific name for the red ore, creates a beautiful deep red dye, but at a high cost concerning health.

Mercury, in all of its forms, is a highly toxic element to humans. Its greatest threat lies in the fact that it is a bioaccumulative toxin, meaning it builds up in the body over time with exposure. A makeup user who applied a Cinnabar rouge every day would accumulate a small amount of mercury through absorption into the skin with each user, and could eventually build up to an overwhelming amount of mercury. Mercury can affect numerous systems in the body with severe symptoms such as mental illness, skin rashes and loss of senses.

16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History
A photograph of a goat. Wikimedia.

7. Goat Hair Eyebrows

It would be fair to say that the ancient Greeks were obsessed with the appearance of women’s eyebrows. They attached much meaning to eyebrows, with untouched brows indicating purity and youthful beauty. The pinnacle of eyebrow beauty was the unibrow. It showed great beauty and intelligence. Greek women were known to fill in patchy eyebrows to attempt to create the perfect unibrow. When Kohl or soot failed to produce the desired effect, they turned to a more dramatic solution: goat hair.

False eyebrows would be crafted out of goat hair and attached to the skin with tree resin adhesive. One can imagine how itchy this concoction must have been. However, the French aristocracy of the 18th century took the animal hair eyebrows to a whole new level.

In the Georgian period, high society women would entirely shave off their eyebrows – a somewhat daunting task in an era of straight razors and no penicillin. They would then replace their eyebrows with patches crafted from mouse skins and attached with plant-based adhesives. It’s hard to imagine the sight of a ballroom full of beautiful women in elaborate gowns, only to approach them and find mouse skin patches glued to their faces.

16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History
A portrait of Queen Elizabeth with ghostly white skin. Grassroots Shakespeare.

8. Poisonous Lead Face Powder

Throughout much of history, pure white skin has been valued as a symbol of youth, health, beauty, and purity. This trend was at one of its peaks during the 18th century, the era of many horrifying and dangerous beauty trends. Leading the pack as one of the most dangerous was the use of lead face powder to achieve an even, stark white complexion. While safer options like vinegar and bismuth were available to make a white powder or cream, the most popular and luxurious choice was lead powder.

The lead was valued for its opacity, allowing for the stark white coverage depicted in historical paintings of deathly white-faced women. All of the women, and many of the men, of high society caked on an entire layer of lead facepaint for every social event. The full coverage also allowed the rampant smallpox scars of the era to be evened out or even hidden. However, using lead came at a high price for both the skin and one’s overall health.

In addition to being an incredibly toxic bioaccumulative poison, lead also destroys the skin. A high society Georgian woman who began using lead makeup would soon find her skin looking worse each morning, necessitating the use of ever more lead. As this cycle continued, the surface would literally start to break down with blackening patches and wounds. It also caused eye problems as well as a loss of hair and teeth.

16 Disgusting Cosmetic Products Used Throughout History
A painting of the Japanese practice of Ohaguro, or blackening the teeth. Ancient Origins.

9. Black or Brown Tooth Dye

Thanks to the rarity of sugar, many peasants in the middle ages had decently healthy teeth despite the lack of dental care. However, the wealthy often over-indulged in the luxury of sugar resulting in horribly rotten teeth. In particular, Queen Elizabeth was noted for having teeth that were black from rot. Since Elizabeth was an icon and leader of many trends, even her black teeth were open to mimicry.

Peasants and lower classes began to use soot and other black compounds to dye their teeth. This notion gave the false high-status look of being able to indulge in sugary treats. While it’s hard to imagine now, when bright white teeth and thin bodies are the ideals of beauty, both rotten teeth and obesity were often only obtainable by the richest and highest stationed people in the middle ages and thus elevated as extremely desirable status signifiers. How times change.

In Japan, the trend of darkening teeth began separately and long before the Elizabethan era. The practice of Ohaguro involved staining the teeth a dark brown with lacquer. The lacquer was made from iron filings dissolved in vinegar. The method was followed by many in high society to give a distinct look that was not easily practiced by the lower classes.

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.