Lead, arsenic and lacquered teeth

Lead, arsenic and lacquered teeth


Butt lifts, plump lips and magnetic eyelashes…you could argue the world of beauty has taken a crazy turn.

That is until you take a walk through history to find that long before the Kardashians and indeed as long as humans have roamed the earth we’ve been more than a little wacky when it comes to the beauty ideal.

Here’s a quick recap of six strange beauty trends. And spoiler alert, many were deadly. So, for centuries, we’ve been dying to look good.

Ew eyelashes, that’s so gross

You know those eyelashes you now dedicate so much time to enhancing, well if you’d lived in the middle ages, you’d have been, like, so passé.

For the 400 years of the mediaeval era, eyelashes were out of style. Instead, the focus was on that true symbol of feminine beauty – the forehead. And how do you make the forehead stand out? By ripping out your eyebrows and eyelashes of course!   

In an age where no-one lived long enough to incur furrows and wrinkles in their forehead, well that probably makes sense.

Let them…wear lead

While Marie Antoinette was off eating cake and losing touch with the poor, she and her peers were also setting a trend that would last for generations.

A hallmark of Antionette’s 18th century reign was a pale complexion afforded by heavy white powder that just happened to be laced with lead.

Interestingly, this oft-fatal trend was set by necessity, with many using the powder to cover scars of Smallpox. Smallpox sufferers would also adhere taffeta and silk to their faces to cover those unsightly wounds.

Nice tan, peasant!

The pale obsession continued long into the 19th Century, with fair skin indicating a higher class. A tan was equated to working outside, so women tried valiantly to keep their skin pale with a concoction of strawberries and wine.

Great veins, gorgeous

These days we undergo surgery to hide the varicose numbers but in the late 1800s veins, yes veins were all the rage. So much so that women would accentuate their veins using blue or purple pencils. The theory was veins made their skin look whiter.

Would you like arsenic with that?

Just when you thought the commitment to an appealing complexion couldn’t get much more deadly, arsenic became all the rage in the early 20th century.

In fact, an advertisement for Dr Rose’s “arsenic wafers” promises the following:

“Even the coarsest and most repulsive skin and complexion, marred by freckles and other disfigurements, slowly changes into an unrivalled purity of texture, free from any spot or blemish whatever; the pinched features become agreeable, the form angular gradually transforms itself into the perfection of womanly grace and beauty.”

Oh, so beautiful black teeth

Forget the floss, and skip the dentist, because for hundreds of years a beauty feature of Japanese culture was black teeth.

Known as Ohaguro, the trend saw teeth become almost lacquered by drinking a concoction of iron-based black dye made palatable by cinnamon and aromatic spices. Not only was it totally striking, it also symbolised women’s submission to men, so who says the beauty ethos doesn’t run a little deep?

In the end, the practice was banned in the 1870s by an empress who believed white teeth were a move towards modernisation.

And to think, one day they’ll view Botox and Brazilians as equally bizarre!


Cassandra Charlesworth is a features writer with 20 years’ journalism experience. She loves a good old-fashioned story and getting to the heart of a great yarn. She’s also a mum to three children who have encouraged her to hone some secret skills. Nimbly navigating Lego pieces left on her loungeroom floor and creating stylish Barbie attire from all manner of household objects are just a couple of credentials she’s recently added to her resume.

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