“ROSY CHEEKS . . . Skin clear as Alabaster . . . LENNOX’S HARMLESS ARSENIC WAFERS”



No beauty advice would be complete without a rundown of the ‘superfoods’ and drinks that make you lovely from the inside, but I was reminded of the strange history of edible beauty recently by an advert for Perfectil beauty supplements. It’s a bit of an odd one:

“It contains vitamin B2, biotin and iodine which contribute to the maintenance of normal skin and provides 1000mcg of copper which contributes to normal skin pigmentation. It also includes selenium and zinc, which contribute to the maintenance of normal nails and normal hair…”

These pills will make you normal! Not exactly the kind of promise you expect to see in a beauty magazine.

While I am quite pleased at the implication that normal might actually be good enough for once, I am less sure about ingesting copper to achieve it. I know, it’s probably fine, but if we look back at the beauty supplements of the past, we might be just a little bit wary…

  • Drinking vinegar for clear skin.
  • Apparently the warm urine of a young boy does that too.
  • You can get bright eyes with “half a dozen drops of whisky and the same quantity of Eau de Cologne, eaten on a lump of sugar” (from Mental Floss)
  • And don’t forget to try Belladonna eye drops.
  • Along with cocaine toothpaste, for that sparkling smile! (from The Everyday Goth)

And my personal favourite:

  • “ROSY CHEEKS . . . Skin clear as Alabaster . . . LENNOX’S HARMLESS ARSENIC WAFERS” (advert in Home Chat, 1900)


‘Ophelia’ by John Everett Millais, 1851-2 (tate.org.uk)

And that’s before we even get to the things that go on your skin:

  • The Ancient Greeks used to bleach their hair using pigeon excrement.
  • They also singed off their pubic hair using heated stones. Makes a Brazilian wax look tame.
  • Some classic 18th and 19th-century makeup ingredients: hyposulphite of soda, mercury, corrosive sublimate (I love this – sublimated corrosion?), carbonate of lead, sugar of lead (in Leigh Summers, Bound to Please).
  • Oh, and some classic 21st-century makeup ingredients: urea (which used to be extracted from horse urine), oleoresin capsicum (that’s pepper spray), diatomite (a component of dynamite), guanine, i.e. fish scales – also known as ‘natural pearl essence’. Nice. (from No More Dirty Looks).

Anyone know of more horrors that I’ve missed? Somehow goji berries and coconut water suddenly seem a much more inviting route to beauty…

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