Category Archives: Victorian Beauty

5 MORE Deadly and Disgusting Victorian Beauty Trends

profile picAndrea Cefalo is a Medieval fiction author and history blogger. Her debut novel The Fairytale Keeper, was a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The sequel–The Countess’s Captive—was published earlier this year.  She is currently working on the third book in her series.

From undergoing surgery to having botox injected into their faces, some modern women go to risky lengths for beauty. Victorian women did the same. Unfortunately for them, agencies like the FDA didn’t exist, and women often didn’t know the dangers or even the contents of their cosmetics. While some makeup and tricks from the Victorian Era were harmless, the lack of regulation led women to venture down some dangerous avenues—all for the sake of beauty. As promised, here is the final article in my two-part series on deadly Victorian beauty trends. Click here to read the first part.

  1. Bathing in Arsenic

Once again the struggle for the perfect complexion led Victorian women to extremes. According to expert Alexis Karl, rumors emerged of women in Bavaria soaking in arsenic baths to keep their skin pristinely white. While bathing in arsenic is not nearly as deadly as ingesting it, bathing in water containing more than 500 parts per billion of the toxic element is highly discouraged as it can exacerbate the symptoms it was meant to cure, such as irritation and redness.

Perhaps more dangerous were the fumes rising from the warm waters. According to the EPA, chronic inhalation of arsenic fumes poses a wide range of health risks from pharyngitis to lung cancer.

Fould's Medicated Arsenic Soap

Predatory companies led Victorian Women to believe ingesting and soaking in arsenic would clear their skin.

2. Polishing Teeth with Cocaine and Boars’ Hair

By the 1870s, women had access to Colgate toothpaste-though it would be another sixty years before anyone used a nylon toothbrush, which DuPont invented in 1938. Like modern Americans, Victorian women desired clean white teeth and healthy gums, but to keep their smiles looking pearly they used tooth powders rather than paste. According to Mary Rose at Everyday Goth, prior to 1870, the tooth powders were often made at home and recipes varied. Some “called for a drop or two of cocaine to be mixed in.” This may have been to help with pain as cocaine will numb the gums. Today, anyone with a middle-school education knows cocaine has a long list of terrible long and short-term side-effects.

Cocaine toothache drops

By the time dentists realized the dangers of cocaine, it was already available to the public.

The man who introduced cocaine into dentistry-William Haldsted-witnessed this first-hand. While the powerful anesthetic revolutionized dentistry, cocaine caused addictions. Haldsted and his colleagues abused the drug. All but one of his colleagues died, so chemists sought an alternative and introduced Novocain in 1905, which quickly replaced cocaine as a local anesthetic.

During the Victorian era, tooth powder recipes varied and just the thought of some of their ingredients will leave a bitter taste on most tongues. In her book, How to Be a Victorian, Ruth Goodman states that soot, chalk, coral, alum, powdered cuttlefish, myrrh, and camphor were commonly used to clean teeth.  After trying the different recipes, (Yes, she actually tried them.) Ms.Goodman said she preferred tooth powders made with soot over the other ingredients.

So how exactly did Victorian women apply their tooth powders and scrub the grime from their teeth, you ask? Some women polished their teeth with cloth, others used toothbrushes with bristles made of boars’ hair. For certain, the hairs were cleaned before the toothbrushes were used, but the idea of cleaning teeth with something that may have been rolling in feces at one point is unsavory to say the least.

Victorian Toothbrush

This advertisement shows the variety of toothbrushes available during the Victorian era. They were often made of animal hair.

  1. Waist Training with Corsets

Though corsets have been around for centuries, women used them to their most dramatic effect during the Victorian Era to achieve the ideal hourglass figure. An examination of corsets on display in French and English museums show the average waist size of a Victorian corset-wearer was twenty-two inches (which is ten inches fewer than today’s average). Women weren’t the only ones wearing corsets during the nineteenth century. Men, like England’s King George IV, sported the contraption as well and suffered the consequences. In 1821, the constriction of his taut “body belt” nearly caused the king to faint.

gibson girl corset

Corsets narrowed the waists of Victorian women. The average diameter (twenty-two inches) was ten fewer inches than today.

Shockingly this beauty trend has made a recent comeback despite its possible dangers. To see how corsets affected internal organs, famous physician and talk show host Dr. Oz asked an avid waist trainer to have an MRI. The results were shocking. When his patient donned a corset, her diaphragm was pushed up two inches and other major organs (liver, kidneys, stomach, and intestines) were shoved upward, as well. The compression on her rib cage left a noticeable ridge-shaped imprint on the liver.

Today, many physicians suspect waist training can cause a wide range of complications like pneumonia, constipation, raised blood pressure, acid reflux, and fainting. But is waist-training deadly?

To answer that question, American anthropologist Rebecca Gibson studied the remains of ten female skeletons from the Victorian and Georgian Eras. As predicted, the rib cages and spines of the corset-wearing women were similarly deformed. But it seems the long-term effects of extreme cinching might not be as deadly as we think. In fact, most of these women met or exceeded the average life expectancy.

4. Squirting Lemon Juice Or Belladonna Juice in the Eyes

Old Queen Victoria

Rather than have surgery for her cataracts, Queen Victoria turned to belladonna to dilate her pupils so she could see.

Victorian women believed eye drops with strange ingredients, like lemon and orange juice, kept their eyes clean and bright. Anyone who loves a splash of lemon in their water has probably accidentally squirted a bit of the juice in their eyes once or twice. It’s not a pleasant experience and often causes redness and irritation. According to ear, nose, and throat specialist Dr. Drew Ordon, these eye drop could also cause corneal abrasions and blindness.

On top of wanting their eyes clean, women longed for large dilated pupils. To create the effect, they turned to eye drops made of belladonna, a well-known poison. Fortunately, belladonna is rarely deadly when used as an eye drop, though ingesting it is extremely dangerous. In her older years, Queen Victoria used the drops as an alternative to cataract surgery. While they certainly didn’t rid her of cataracts, the belladonna dilated her pupils so she could see.

Today, ophthalmologists rely on the drug to treat infections and perform eye exams. Long-term use of the drug is not recommended and can result in a lethal overdose. Immediate side effects include irritation, blurred vision, and light sensitivity. Rarely, belladonna drops cause dizziness, fainting, irregular heartbeat, difficulty breathing, and sudden mood changes.

5. Hiding Blemishes With Lead Face Pastes and Powders

To cover unsightly blemishes and scars, women turned to face paints and powders. Some of these concoctions were rather mild, containing ingredients like rice powder, zinc oxide, or the extremely expensive blend of chloride of bismuth and talc. Others were made of lead flakes. Not only is lead highly toxic, it is easily absorbed through the skin. Side effects of lead poisoning include headache, constipation, memory loss, pain and numbness, and if ingested in large enough quantities, will cause paralysis and death.

Like several other Victorian beauty techniques, lead cosmetics often caused problems it was meant to remedy. Combining lead face powders and paints with corrosive washes resulted in wounds and scars. Women tried to hide the blemishes beneath heavier layers of lead makeup, which made the problem worse.  These thick layers of make-up cracked like porcelain if a woman was too expressive. Since women were expected to be naturally beautiful during the era, appearing at a social event with cracking face paste would have been extremely mortifying.

Victorian Face Powder

Though face powders like this one claimed to be harmless, women rarely knew the ingredients.

Works Cited:

Rob, Alice. “The Deadly Risks of a Victorian Beauty Regime.” Women in the World in  Association with The New York Times WITW. The New York Times, 28 Nov. 2015. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.

“Arsenic Compounds.” Arsenic Compounds. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Dec. 2012. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.

“Atropine Drops: Indications, Side Effects, Warnings –” Atropine Drops: Indications, Side Effects, Warnings –, n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
Calcaterra, Nicholas. “Cocaine: Dentistry’s First Local Anesthetic | Novocaine | Lidocaine.” Directions in Dentistry. N.p., 22 Apr. 2013. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
Connelly, D.D.S. Thomas P. “The History of Toothpaste: From 5000 BC to the Present.” The Huffington Post., 2 Sept. 2010. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
“Corsets – A History Lesson – 1800’s to 1920’s.” Festooned Butterfly. N.p., 09 July 2013. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
“Dangerous Trends.” The Doctors. The Doctors TV Show, 13 Apr. 2011. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
“Dr. Oz Shows How Waist Training Affects Your Body.” – Oz Investigates Waist Training: Is It Safe? Dr. Oz Show, 12 Feb. 2015. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
Fleming, R.S. “Kate Tattersall Adventures.” Kate Tattersall Adventures. N.p., 30 Nov. 2012. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
Killgrove, Kristina. “Here’s How Corsets Deformed The Skeletons Of Victorian Women.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 16 Nov. 2015. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
“Lead Poisoning.” Healthline. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
Mapes, Diane. “Suffering for Beauty Has Ancient Roots.” MSNBC, 11 Jan. 2008. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
Mullen, Alexandra. “Book Review: ‘How to Be a Victorian.” WSJ. Wall Street Journal, 3 Oct. 2014. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
“National Museum of Dentistry.” National Museum of Dentistry. Ed. Gary A. Rayant. N.p., 1 Aug. 2012. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
Newman, Judith. “‘How to Be a Victorian,’ by Ruth Goodman.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 Dec. 2014. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
“Protect Yourself From Arsenic in Your Well Water.” PsycEXTRA Dataset (n.d.): n. pag. North Carolina Department of Public Heath. Apr. 2012. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
Rose, Mary. “The Everyday Goth: 5 Victorian Beauty Tips Guaranteed to Kill You.” The Everyday Goth: 5 Victorian Beauty Tips Guaranteed to Kill You. N.p., 29 May 2013. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
”    Who Invented the Toothbrush and When Was It Invented?” Who Invented the Toothbrush and When Was It? (Everyday Mysteries: Fun Science Facts from the Library of Congress). Library of Congress, 23 Aug. 2010. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
“William Stewart Halsted.” About Halsted. John Hopkins University, 2011. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.

5 Deadly and Disgusting Victorian Beauty Trends

profile picAndrea Cefalo is a Medieval fiction author and history blogger. Her debut novel, The Fairytale Keeper,  was a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The sequel–The Countess’s Captive—was published earlier this year.  She is currently working on the third book in her series.

Though beauty standards have changed over the course of human history, the aspirations and efforts of women to meet these ideals remains largely unchanged. Today, the beauty industry is a multi-billion dollar enterprise that helps women pucker, pinch, pluck, and paint. At least modern women can count on agencies like the FDA to help keep harmful cosmetics off the market. Women living only a century ago weren’t nearly as fortunate and even though natural beauty was the standard and Queen Victoria declared makeup indecent, advertisements from the era prove beauty was a booming business. While some cosmetics and tricks from the Victorian Era were harmless, the lack of regulation led women to venture down some risky avenues—all for the sake of beauty. Ranging from disgusting to downright deadly, below are five of the strangest beauty trends and techniques from the Victorian Era.

1. Catching Tuberculosis

According to researcher Alexis Karl, the symptomatic pale skin of consumptives was associated with innocence, beauty, and above all else wealth. For those ladies who had to work outdoors a surefire way to keep pale was to catch TB. Contracting the Red Death had other beauty benefits, as well. The watery eyes, narrow waist, and translucent complexion of Tuberculosis victims was highly prized and women with the disease were considered extraordinarily beautiful. That being said, death by tuberculosis was pretty horrific, and it seems unlikely that any level-headed person would try to catch it on purpose.

Sleep and his half-brother death

Sleep and his Half-brother Death (1874) by John William Waterhouse.

2. Eating Arsenic Wafers

Women believed eating these deadly supplements not only cleared their complexions, but also changed the shape of their faces by softening sharp features and disfigurements. In 1902, the Sears Roebuck catalog touted Dr. Rose’s French Arsenic Complexion Wafers as a cure-all, saying it possessed “the ‘Wizard’s Touch’ in producing, preserving and enhancing beauty of form… surely developing a transparency and pellucid clearness of complexion, shapely contour of form, brilliant eyes, soft and smooth skin…” The advertisement adamantly claimed that the amount of arsenic in these wafer “crafted by expert chemists” was completely safe. That’s likely untrue.

According to Andrew Meharg, an arsenic expert and professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Aberdeen, regular exposure to minute amounts of inorganic arsenic (10 parts per billion) increases a person’s risk for heart disease and cancer. On top of a long list of horrific side-effects—renal failure, epilepsy, and numbness to name a few—higher doses of arsenic caused the skin deformities that these wafers claimed to remedy.

Dr. Rose Arsenic Wafers

Companies like Sears Roebuck claimed arsenic was safe for consumption.

3. Applying Mercury Eye Shadow

For the most part, Victorian women strived for natural beauty and ladies of high social standing rarely admitted to using make-up—though they most certainly did. The more brazen women wore thick eyeshadow—called eye paint—in shades of red and black. Respectable ladies lined their eyes subtly in similar shades. What was in this so-called eye paint? For starters, a substance called cinnabar was used to create vermillion red. It sounds innocent enough, but contains mercuric sulphide, which can cause kidney damage. Eye paints also contained lead tetroxide and antimony oxide, both of which are considered harmful to humans.


Napoleon toilet service

Toilet services like this, a gift from Napoleon to Josephine in 1810, sometimes hid cosmetics in secret compartments.

4. Dabbing Carmine on the Lips


Victorian women looking to add a little color to their lips often turned to a scarlet pigment called carmine. The pigment itself comes from the cochineal, a parasitic insect native to South America and Mexico. Most commonly, the pigment is extracted by grinding the insect bodies into a fine powder and then boiling them in ammonia. While carmine is rather disgusting, the dye only poses a threat to those who are allergic to it.

From strawberry toaster pastries to red velvet cake mixes, carmine dyes can be found in a variety of foods today. It is also commonly used in cosmetics and supplements. Consumer’s with an aversion to exoskeletons, can avoid it by checking the ingredient list on products before buying them. Carmine is also called Crimson Lake, Natural Red 4, C.I. 75470, Cochineal, and E120.


Cochineal were used to create red pigments in Victorian cosmetics.

5. Whitening Skin with Lead Lotions

In order to rid themselves of freckles and blemishes, many Victorian women turned to corrosive face lotions. Though companies advertised that their “toilet preparations” were harmless, the American Medical Association begged to differ. In 1869, the AMA published a paper entitled “Three Cases of Lead Palsy from the Use of a Cosmetic Called ‘Laird’s Bloom of Youth’” which warned women of potential health risks from these so-called safe beauty treatments. Considering the face lotion contained lead acetate, it’s no surprise Laird’s Blood of Youth caused side effects such as paralysis, muscle atrophy, headaches, and nausea.

Lairds Bloom of Youth

This ad falsely claims the safety of Laird’s Bloom of Youth.

Did you enjoy this article? An article entitled 5 More Deadly and Disgusting Beauty Trends is coming early next week. Follow the blog to make sure you don’t miss out.

Works Cited
Fleming, R.S. “Early Victorian Era Makeup, Cosmetics, and Embelishments.” Kate Tattersall Adventures. R.S Fleming, 30 Nov. 2012. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.
Hibbert, Christopher. “The Middle Class.” Life in Victorian England. New York: Horizon, 2016. N. pag. Print.
Liu, Jie, Jing-Zheng Shi, Li-Mei Yu, Robert A. Goyer, and Michael P. Waalkes. “Mercury in Traditional Medicines: Is Cinnabar Toxicologically Similar to Common Mercurials?” Experimental Biology and Medicine (Maywood, N.J.). U.S. National Library of Medicine, 29 Apr. 2008. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.
Mapes, Diane. “Suffering for Beauty Has Ancient Roots.” N.p., 11 Jan. 2008. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.
Rob, Alice. “The Deadly Risks of a Victorian Beauty Regime.” Women in the World in Association with The New York Times WITW. The New York Times, 28 Nov. 2015. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.
Sears Roebuck. Spring Catalog 1902 1902: n. pag. Print.
Shute, Nancy. “In Rice, How Much Arsenic Is Too Much?” NPR. NPR, 24 Feb. 2012. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.
Yoquinto, Luke. “The Truth About Red Food Dye Made from Bugs.” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 27 Apr. 2012. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.