While our modern beauty regimens certainly don’t lack weird ingredients, by tradition our good looks have often been achieved at the cost of good taste and health. What deadly and disgusting things have people used to stay young and pretty? Here are a few of the truly disturbing used throughout history.
For some reason, the ancient Greeks thought crocodile excrement had restorative and beautifying properties. It was mixed into natural mud holes or baths full of warmed mud, and Grecian lovelies hung about in it until they felt restored and beautiful (I’m guessing that took quite a while.) We don’t know how they collected it (or why they decided it was a good idea in the first place) but it was all the rage in the wealthy and youth-seeking circles. Thankfully, bathing with water was also in vogue and there are no official reports of reptile-poo poisoning.
In the early days of the geisha, Japanese women used a whitening paste on their faces made mostly of rice flour and bird droppings. It was applied over the entire face, including the ears, inside the nostrils, on the eyelids and lips.
Hair dye has long been a staple of modern women, but ancient Iranian women also enjoyed a good dye-job. They compounded a nasty mix of henna, tadpoles, and the blood of black cows, which they applied liberally to darken and condition their hair. It was thought that the blood gave the cows their dark coloring and would do the same for human hair. Although henna is used as a natural dye to this day, the inclusion of tadpoles still confounds me.
The women of England have been famous throughout history for their elaborate and strange beauty routines. In the era of Queen Elizabeth, when red hair was in fashion, women used a powder made of sulfur and safflower petals to color their hair and wigs. The blend caused headaches, nausea, and frequent nosebleeds.
When it comes to heavy metal poisoning, no one trumps the ancient Egyptians. Men and women painted their eyes almost daily with a mixture called mesdemet, made from a dark gray lead, among other things. Also, a green paint called udju was used, made from a copper ore. Although neither product could be considered healthy, the eyepaint that Egyptians wore is credited with repelling insects and preventing infections due to the high antimicrobial activity of copper ore.
In a medieval version of today’s CoverGirl compact, European women used a powder (pressed into cakes or small jars) to whiten their skin. The fashionable pallor was created by using white lead ore and arsenic, among other unhealthy-but-white ingredients.
Dental care was a little lax throughout most of history, but Romans in the time of Jupiter appreciated white teeth nearly as much as we do today. To improve the color of their teeth and freshen their breath, Romans imported Portuguese urine (believed to be stronger than their own) to rinse their mouths. While obviously unpleasant, urine contains several compounds like ammonia and urea that actually kill germs and help fight the gum disease gingivitis.
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