April 29, 2013

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Deathly Pale - Arsenic in Cosmetics

Pale skin was the beauty goal of women in the 19th century.  But the quest for pale skin could turn deadly.  In July 1880, the "Indianapolis Sentinel" reported on a woman who gradually lost her sight as a result of taking arsenic for beauty purposes.  Another newspaper report told the story of a girl from St. Louis who took several boxes of wafers (pills) in an attempt to clean up a skin complaint. 

There were many beauty products for the skin available that contained arsenic. In Britain one of the most popular was known as Dr. MacKenzie's Improved Harmless Arsenic Complexion Wafers.  This product was also marketed under Dr. Simms, Dr. Rose and Dr. Campbell.  In the United States, the main brand was Dr. Campbell's. The above photo shows the compound for sale under the name of Dr. Rose in the Sears and Roebuck catalog of 1901 and 1902.  It remained available in the U.S. until well into the 1920's.  The product produced pale skin by destroying red blood cells. 

But here's the kicker:  The poisonous effects of arsenic have been known for centuries.  Indeed, it was the poison of choice in Medieval and Renaissance times.  Despite the claim that those arsenic wafers were "harmless", surely women in the 19th century knew better.  Apparently not.

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