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Five Terrifying Tales of Toxic Makeup

Having grown up in Hiawatha, Kansas – home to the nation’s longest running Halloween Parade – it’s really no surprise that Halloween would always hold the top spot on my list of favorite holidays. I simply love Halloween! I mean, I love ALL things Halloween…the scary movies, the decorations, the costumes, the fall weather, the tricks, the treats, the jack-o'-lanterns…all of it! It’s bad. But at the same time, it’s just so good! So, in honor of Halloween Week, I’ve drummed up five terrifying tales of times makeup has gone horribly wrong. Enjoy!

A Complexion to Die For

“Do you suffer from freckles, black-heads, pimples, redness, rough, yellow or “muddy” skin? If so, Dr. Campbell’s Safe Arsenic Complexion Wafers may be right for you.” Though I totally recommend getting a second opinion.

In the late 1800s, Dr. Campbell’s (or Dr. MacKenzie’s, as it was marketed in the U.K.) was sold to the masses as the ultimate complexion cure. By this time, science had shown that arsenic could become more tolerable when consumed regularly, and in small quantities. It’s ability to lighten skin by destroying red blood cells offered consumers the promise of brighter, lighter, clearer skin under the guise of a “safe” little snack. Unfortunately, as some very unlucky users quickly learned, Dr. Campbell’s Safe Wafers weren’t so safe after all. Many women quickly began to experience symptoms such as vomiting, internal bleeding, hair loss, blindness, convulsions and death. Quite the price to pay for the perfect complexion! Although Dr. Campbell’s hasn’t been sold since the 1920s, the presence of arsenic in counterfeit beauty products still exists today.

Kiss of Death

Dita Von Teese once said, “Heels and red lipstick will put the fear of God into people.” While I’m not sure about the heels, she may have been onto something with the lipstick!

The history of lipstick, dating back as far as Ancient Egypt, has been filled with more mystery and drama than…well…the perfect red lip. In the 1700s lipstick was all but abolished by the church, who viewed sporting such a trend as sinful. Later, in an act of revolt, Queen Elizabeth I took to painting her lips scarlet with her own homemade concoction. Although we stan a strong-ass, independent-thinking woman in 2020, there was a bit of a problem with the Queen’s gesture: her DIY lipstick was made with lead and was slowly poisoning her. It’s been rumored it was Elizabeth I’s favorite lipstick (or lead-based face paint) that eventually caused her demise. As the story goes, when the body of Queen Elizabeth I was found in her chamber, she was wearing a very full face of makeup (including her signature red lip) that was no less than a half inch thick!

If you didn’t rock out to Lita Ford’s “Kiss Me Deadly” after reading this one, we probably can’t be friends.

Damsels in Distress

In the 1800s, the more fragile and delicate a woman appeared, the more beautiful she was considered to be. In order to create the red, glassy-eyed look you can only obtain naturally by running a fever, women took to putting belladonna droplets into their eyes. Belladonna, for those who don’t know, is a poisonous plant. These drops would dilate the pupils and cause the eyes to become red and watery. They would also wreak havoc on the nervous system and often times result in death. If it’s the “brink of death” look they were going for, it sounds like the belladonna eye drops really got the job done!

Bathtub of Terror

In the early 1900s, it was discovered that many hot mineral springs contained radioactive water, which appeared to cure a number of ailments, such as arthritis, gout, and the like, and leave those who dared soak in them with a healthful glow. Soon after this discovery, Radium Emanation Bath products were created. After soaking in a bath treated with radium, users were said to emerge refreshed and radiation. Sounds good, right? That was until people actually became ill after using the products.

It was later found that once radium was in your tub, it would remain there. This left a lingering risk bathers would become sick, or potentially develop cancer. I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll stick to showers from now on.

Stage Fright

Since the earliest days of theater, stage makeup has been in a constant state of adaptation. Though makeup in the 17th and 18th centuries was quite simple, the common theme was stark, white skin with a slight rosy glow, and a red lip suited for a queen (we see you, Queen Elizabeth I). In order to create the perfect shade of pale, actors often used Ceruse – a white pigment derived from lead. Other popular choices included Mercury Sublimate and Bismuth (“pearl powder”). Rouge was often made from toxic Vermillion, a bright red pigment derived from mercury sulfide. Although many actors suffered severe ailments caused by toxic stage makeup, it doesn’t really seem that anyone in later years learned much from these incidents. Centuries later, actor Buddy Ebsen would be covered in aluminum powder makeup for his role as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. After only 10 days on set, Ebsen developed a severe reaction as the aluminum dust he had been inhaling ravaged his lungs. Ebsen had to be hospitalized and nearly died, and his role was ultimately fulfilled by Jack Haley. The studio then began mixing the aluminum powder into a paste for Haley, to avoid the dangers on inhalation; however, the aluminum paste left him with an eye infection that would later require surgery.


Which spooky tale of makeup-gone-wrong was your favorite? Do you have any beauty-related horror stories of your own? Comment down below, and have a SAFE and Happy Halloween!

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