5 Of The Strangest Beauty Trends From History
If you want to know exactly how much we value looks as a society, take a look at the beauty industry. Worldwide, it’s worth more than half a trillion dollars and growing rapidly. Social media is flooded with beauty vloggers and makeup artists posting tutorials and promoting products. High street fashion brands are now dipping their toes into makeup and cosmetics. Beauty brands are rapidly expanding their range of sustainable and eco-friendly products.
Since the end of the 19th century, beauty has been commercialised in much the same way most other things have. It has its drawbacks: beauty ads, for example, have been shown to lower the self esteem of female consumers. But the good thing about the growth of beauty into a mass industry is that products are heavily regulated, and thus in most instances safe.
That last point is a fairly recent development. While cosmetic products today are tested extensively to ensure they’re safe, that hasn’t been the case for most of human history. Combined with the technological limitations of the past, beauty trends historically have been in some instances bizarre, and in others actually dangerous.
Here are five of the strangest beauty trends from human history.
1. Portuguese Urine Mouthwash
If you’re thinking “woah, this starts in a dark place”, you’d be right. But that isn’t what the Ancient Romans thought about urine back in 753 BC. No, the Romans believed that urine would actually whiten the teeth if used as mouthwash.
For the Romans, though, not all pee was created equal. On the contrary, they insisted on importing urine from Portugal. Why, you might ask? The answer is so obvious as to be trivial: because Portuguese people apparently had the strongest urine in the world.
At this point, you might be thinking “well, it was like 1267 years ago - I’d probably use my own pee as mouthwash if I was alive then” - and that may very well be true. But people didn’t stop rinsing their mouths with pee when the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD. In fact, people continued to use urine as mouthwash until as recently as the 18th Century.
2. Black Teeth
More than 200 years before the Fall of Rome, women in Japan started a teeth trend that didn’t involve bodily fluids. Instead of coating their teeth with hot Portuguese piss, Japanese women dyed their teeth black.
How? Nothing bad, really. Just some cinnamon, a few aromatic spices, and uh- oh yeah, that’s it: iron-based black dye. Sounds unhealthy, right? Now imagine someone’s asking you to pick between gargling ultra-concentrated Portuguese urine and dying your teeth with a heavy metal. Pee doesn’t sound so bad anymore, does it?
3. Lead-Based Makeup
Lead-based makeup has a long and alarming history. For centuries, women would mix lead with vinegar to make a substance called ceruse, which when applied to the face would cause the skin to look very pale.
At the time, it had some advantages. It smoothed out the face. It could be made in the home. It could hide the myriad of plagues that spread throughout Europe and the rest of the world at the time.
Unfortunately, lead-based makeup exacted a heavy toll on the women who used it. Over time, they would develop lead poisoning which, unlike lead-based makeup apparently, did not make you look beautiful. On the contrary, it gave you things like constipation, grey hair, severe abdominal pain, dry skin, brain damage and death. Fun!
Once people started to realise caking your skin with a poisonous metallic compound was a bad idea actually, they came up with a genius alternative: eating arsenic.
Arsenic was a revolutionary cosmetic innovation because it got right to the source. Lead-based makeup made you look pale. Arsenic made you actually pale. It also gave you seizures, muscle cramps and bloody urine, but I guess so did everything else back then.
5. Nightshade Eye Drops
Over in Renaissance Italy, women figured out a way to make their eyes more beautiful. Wide, Doe-like eyes were all the rage in the Renaissance, and through their efforts to be fashionable, Italian women discovered that the belladonna plant made their pupils dilate.
You might know the belladonna plant by its more common name Deadly Nightshade. It’s called Deadly Nightshade because it’s poisonous, and women who used it too much in Renaissance Italy ended up going blind.
In all fairness, that might’ve been a blessing. After all, if you can’t see, what’s the point in whitening your teeth with piss, covering your skin in a poisonous metal, or eating arsenic in order to look beautiful?
Rob English is the Senior Solutions Officer at Pharmica, an online pharmacy based in central London. In addition to his responsibilities in web and business development, Rob also writes about issues related to health and wellbeing.