Vintage (Un-) Natural Beauty- Victorian Shockers!

Over the last few weeks I’ve been having a good nosy around the Victorian era to find affordable and natural beauty solutions from this period. Not all Victorian beauty treatments were so healthy though- in fact, some were downright shockers.

Arsenic was used by Victorian women to whiten their complexions and remove unwanted body hair. Dr Mackenzie’s Arsenical Soaps, produced in the 1890s, promised “the most lovely complexion, free from blotch, blemish, coarseness, redness, freckles, or pimples”. Similar results were promised for arsenic pills and powders designed for internal ingestion. The writers of Personal Beauty: How to Cultivate and Preserve It (1870), Daniel Brinton and Henry Napheys, observed that “There is a preparation largely sold by the shops under the attractive name poudre rajeunissante, the active principle of which is simply arsenic”. The trouble was, however, that arsenic is a deadly poison. Brinton and Napheys wrote that “Within a few months we have noted three deaths attributed by the newspapers to eating arsenic to improve the complexion”.

In order to remove excess body hair, arsenic was sometimes combined with caustic substances such as lime and potash. Victorian dancer and beauty expert Lola Montez wrote that “I have known several unfortunate ladies produce ulcers and dangerous sores by compounds which they used for the purpose of removing these blemishes”. Historian Ruth Goodman in her book How to be a Victorian writes that Victorian hair-removal products were often “based upon a range of caustic substances, such as sodium hydroxide . . . The danger was that, if they touched the skin, they could cause serious burns”.

Dyeing your hair in the Victorian era was a particularly risky and dangerous business, as the Victorians struggled to make a safe and effective hair dye. Many of the hair dyes that were produced ended up as a terrifying cocktail of chemicals. Lola Montez felt that women should be warned about hair dyes containing “such things as poisonous mineral acids, nitrate and oxide of silver, caustic alkalis, lime, litharge and arsenic”: “All these patent compounds rot the hair, if they do no greater mischief”. The “greater mischief” Lola Montez was thinking of could have been the risk of horrific chemical burns on the scalp: Ruth Goodman observes that “the chemicals involved [in dyeing hair] were corrosive, and accidents were common”.

I certainly won’t be trying any of these Victorian beauty treatments- some things are just better off consigned to the history books!


Becky x 

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