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In Victorian England and the post-Civil War era in America, the use of heavy metals in cosmetics- such as mercury, arsenic and lead was widespread. The ideal complexion during that era was a pale one that never saw the light of day. Women wore hats and gloves and carried parasols to shield their complexion from the sun's rays.
However, the manner in which they achieved the pallor or sickly pale look was often through the use of arsenic. Arsenic wafers (which were eaten) were advertised to lighten a woman's complexion, and was also present in soaps and powders; eye shadows often contained mercury and lead. In addition, large pupils were a desired trait and eyedrops made from the deadly nightshade were used to keep pupils dilated, although its use often lead to blindness. Lead was used directly on the skin through an alum poultrice to treat pimples and other irregularities, which sometimes lead to death.
All these cosmetic rituals seem preposterous and farcical to us now, but if we examine our own era, beauty in our day and age verge on a similar level of absurd, toxic beauty.
Whereas women and men of the 1800s and early 1900s used toxic metals, we have chemicals such as phthalates, parabens, talcum powder, nanoparticles, formaldehyde, lead acetate, coal tar, UV filters such as octyl methoxycinnamate and 4-methybenxylidene camphor, triclosan, resorcinol, toulene, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and many other chemicals present in our cosmetics and beauty products.
In addition to these toxic chemicals present in our cosmetics, what would our future ancestors think when they examine our contemporary era and take note of the rampant plastic surgery industries that propel the use of latisse (bimatoprost ophthalmic solution) to grow eyelashes in which side effects include eyelid swelling, discharge, and blood seeping into the eye chamber? I also wonder what our future population would think when they examine the widespread use of toxins promoted by celebrities to paralyse muscles in the face to appear less-wrinkled? Botox is the commercial name for botulinum toxin, a neurotoxic protein produced by the bacterium clostridium botulinum. Other botulinum toxins also include Dysport, Bocouture, Myobloc. Use of these products could cause death and respiratory failure, yet according to their websites, more than 6 million botulinum toxin treatments are administered each year. There has also been stipulation that injection of these toxins are linked to autoimmune diseases.
Many plastic surgeons and cosmetic doctors do not also point out the obvious that paralysing muscles in the face does not lead to increased pliability and firmness of the skin and may instead lead to thinner skin tissue in which the muscles lose its flexibility. However, these highly profitable schemes do not rest on the conscience of many doctors who administer these types of toxic treatments.
Another odd treatment our future population might examine in which they might note with disbelief and absurdity is injection of silicone into the body. Silicones are polysiloxanes which are polymers that include any inert, synthetic compound made up of repeating units of siloxane, which is a chain of alternating silicon atoms and oxygen atoms commonly known as a type of plastic, but technically part of the rubber family, and has been used to enhance breasts. The non-biodegradable forms of silicone have also been used as injections to fill the appearance of lines in the face. These non-biodegradable fillers provoke a foreign body reaction that stimulates a fibroblastic deposition of collagen around the non-absorbable microspheres and the body forms collagen around the silicone particles.
Now you may ask, what kind of person would willingly inject a non-biodegradable rubber particle into their face so that collagen might form around it? Surely the idea of that is absurd now, as it probably will also be similarly noted in future generations. Just as we think Victorians were insane to utilise mercury, lead and arsenic in their cosmetics, future generations will brand our era in a similar way for the widespread use of silicones. There are also silicones mixed with bovine and pig collagen as part of dermatologic practices that can cause severe reactions, such as necrosis (death) of the skin. This happens because human DNA does not recognise the foreign DNA of other species such as bovine (cow) and pig and non-biodegradable materials such as silicone and the body's immune system treats it as a foreign body, and this begins the long process of side effects that could ultimately end up with infected or deadened skin tissue. However, toxic treatments of this variety are a multi-billion dollar business around the world and most doctors are not warning patients of the dangers of these types of cosmetic treatments due to the global marketing of these products as beauty enhancers.
In addition to these toxic treatments, nanoparticles have now entered the sphere of the cosmetics industry. Micellar water has been targeted for use in cleansing products of the face, but what micellar water really is micellar nanoparticles that are water-soluble. Nanoparticles can be absorbed through the skin into our organs, and no one knows the long-term effects of nanoparticles in cosmetic usage, although breathing in nanoparticles present in paint can lead to cancer and other diseases.
However, although Victorian England and our own era has its history of toxic beauty treatments, there also exists, on a parallel level, an awareness and return to natural products. Just as Victorian era and post Civil War era women were eating arsenic wafers to appear pale and pallid, and dusting themselves with arsenic laced powders and mercury laced eyeshadows, there also existed a large Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture of women and men who made their own products from natural ingredients. Perfumes, facial toners, lip salves came from naturopathic recipes made from essential oils, fruit, such as elderberries, flowers and rose water. One of the natural remedies during that time which has endured the test of time is Thayer's witch hazel - made from the witch hazel shrub with tannins and natural b-vitamins, citric acid and grapefruit seed extract.
U.S.-based companies have been fairly remarkable in its innovation of non-toxic cosmetics that have quietly been the independent understudy of the major brands which are primarily owned by the Estée Lauder group and L'oreal, and some of the producers of the independent cosmetics space have been producing ethically made beauty products for decades.
Cherylanne DeVita is the founder of DeVita Natural Skin Care. She came from an Italian immigrant family in New York City and founded the skincare and cosmetics line in her 40s in 1998 after suffering all her life from chronic cystic acne. One of my favourites from her skincare line is the vitamin C serum, which I have been using since university. Although the formulation has changed slightly over the years from being more of a watery consistency to a more palpable thicker consistency, I find it works really well when used over vitamin e lotion as it is quite potent. This serum I've found really accelerates the turning over of new skin.
Sally Malanga is a social entrepreneur and founded Ecco Bella in 1992 and is also an alumna of University of Georgia and NYU. Personally, I find her face powders and blushes an incredible match for my skin tone. The consistency of her cosmetics actually improves the texture of one's skin, and it appears as if one isn't wearing makeup at all but slightly glowing. I am also a fan of her unusual scented perfumes, and Ambrosia eau de parfum is a scent that is strangely reminiscent of previous eras in which its exotic flavours probably isn't for everyone, but rather nice after the drydown.
Kirsten Corcoran founded Larénim in 2004 after struggling with skin problems all her life. She comes from a nutrition background, and although she left the company when Larénim was acquired by Nutriceuticals in 2014, she has since founded a fitness and nutrition center in Ohio. My favourite products in her line are her eyeshadows. I have hypersensitive eyes and any sort of eyeliner or shadow usually irritates and inflames my eyes, but I find Larénim's eyeshadows don't irritate at all. They are also versatile, so can be utilised in both its dry form and applied with a brush in water for a wet, gel like consistency.
Richelieu Dennis and Nyema Tubman had just graduated Babson Colege in 1991, when they teamed up with Richelieu's mother, Mary Dennis to become the founders of Nubian Heritage. Straight out of university, they had no job prospects but were inspired by the healing wisdom and wellness solutions of ancient Nubia. They formulated their beauty products using African black soap and shea butter and first sold it on the streets of Harlem, where they got to interact with their customers and explain the history of their products. I have been using Nubian Heritage's soaps for more than a decade, and I found their soaps are better for cleansing my face than a normal facial cleanser. Although I used quite expensive facial cleansers from high school when I would follow my mother to department stores to receive free Estée Lauder and Chanel gift samples, I have found these soaps work better and doesn't dry out your skin. My personal favourites are the carrot pomegrante soap, lemongrass and tea tree and also the indian hemp and velvetier. Their lotions are also quite thick and rich and I've found a little goes a long way.
Elwood Richard, was an advocate of health foods in the 1960s during an era when no one had heard of health foods before he founded Now Foods in Chicago in 1968. Now Foods produces vitamin supplements, but they also have a great line of lotions and oils. I like to use their vitamin e cream on my face which I find I can mix with other ingredients. I find this a staple product to have and with this versatile vitamin e lotion, which has 28,000 iu of vitamin e; adding zinc oxide powder dissolved in aloe vera water creates instant sunblock and adding vitamin c crystals and niacinamide powder dissolved in aloe vera water creates a perfect night cream that could be adjusted in strength for your personal preference. Another staple I have found is the Now Foods non-GMO avocado oil. Avocado oil has a long shelf life, unlike many other oils; and can be utilised for any sort of aggressive skin condition and I think generally has multiple uses from hair to body to even using it on your pets to moisturise their paws or noses or rub into their fur and skin after a bath.
Although in our current era, many toxins are present in our cosmetics, the U.S. has really been at the forefront of the natural cosmetics movement, in which there has been a return to natural products without the use of harsh chemicals. I am also of the opinion that drinking clean, mineral water is the best thing for skin, in addition to eating organic foods rich in vitamin K and B-vitamins to build up the body's natural collagen storage. There are many collagen supplements out there, usually made from animal sources, which do not enhance the human body's own collagen reserves. Many nutritionists and homeopathic doctors believe that being healthy and having good skin is a sign of good internal health, and so to begin the process of having great skin, I think we need to understand our nutritional needs to address what is inside our bodies before we buy into the external, often toxic cosmetics industry that attempt to push their dangerous products and treatments onto the population and try to convince us that they are "safe."
By Sierra Choi
Disclaimer: This post is for educational purposes only and not intended as medical advice.