Skip Nav

10 of the Worst Beauty Products Ever to Exist

10 of History's Very Worst Beauty Treatments

Humans have been using dubious cosmetics for millennia, and although there are still plenty of suspect products out there, they pale in comparison to the dangerous, deadly, and sometimes just plain horrifying stuff women and men of the past swore by. It's fascinating (and scary) to think about our ancestors' favorite products, so to see the worst of the worst, just keep reading.

  • Ceruse foundation: Ceruse, or a tincture of lead and vinegar, was one of the most common foundation ingredients for men and women for hundreds of years, and has even been blamed for the fall of the samurai during Japan's Edo period and the decline of the Roman Empire. As you might imagine, lead poisoning was common at the time.
  • Mercury illuminator: Either alone or mixed in with ceruse foundation, mercury sublimates were used from the Renaissance until the 1800s to give skin a fine, silvery sheen that refracted light and concealed flaws. And poisoned people.
  • Bella donna eye wash: Victorian women would dilute bella donna in water and then droplet the solution into their eyes to dilate their pupils and make their eyes look brighter. Of course, using too much could also cause blindness.
  • Catherine de Medici's perfumed gloves: It wasn't always a sign of favor if French queen Catherine de Medici or her perfumer, René Bianco, gifted you with a pair of perfumed gloves. A fabled poisoner, Catherine was rumored to have had René lace perfumed gloves with toxins in order to kill Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre.
  • Mouse fur eyebrows: In the 1700s, thick, lustrous eyebrows were a sign of beauty. If yours were thin or otherwise lacking, you could hide it by covering your brows with patches of mouse fur.
  • Leeches for paleness: Medieval Europeans would get a perfectly blanched complexion without the use of makeup by regularly undergoing bloodletting by leeches.
  • Eating chalk and drinking iodine: To get paler skin, some women in the 18th and 19th century went so far as to imbibe chalk and iodine.
  • Lash Lure: The deaths and cases of blindness caused by a "permanent lash tint" marketed as Lash Lure helped rally public support for the passage of 1938's Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
  • Aqua Tofana: Want to be rid of your husband? If you lived in 17th century Naples, you could just dab a little Aqua Tofana on your face and ask him for a peck on the cheek. Poisoner Giulia Tofana's "cosmetic," which was actually a mixture of lead and arsenic, is purported to have killed more than 600 unlucky (and clearly unloved) men.
  • Quicklime depilatory: In her famed Book of Experiments, Renaissance alchemist (and Botticelli model) Caterina Sforza speaks of Italian ladies using quicklime, or calcium oxide, to remove hair. The problem here is that the substance is highly reactive with water, causing severe irritation when it comes into contact with moist skin. So while your leg hair might be gone, you'd also probably be red and blistered for weeks.

Photo courtesy The US Food and Drug Administration

Latest Fashion