History of Lead in Beauty Products

Lead is a toxic substance and when exposed to or ingested it leads to lead poisoning in the body. This causes major organs to fail, causes developmental delay, loss of appetite, weight loss and more. Lead has been used throughout history and it has been only recently that lead exposure has been understood to be a problem.

In the 1950s -1970s  Needleman and Patterson research of lead’s toxicity in humans were targeted by the Lead industry who try to discredit them and their work. In the early 2000s was when we finally start seeing a effort to curb lead in products.

In the past, it was a different story.  Lead was commonly used in many places and items, especially in cosmetics. The Egyptians used lead as in their Kohl for their eyeliners around 1300 BC.  Geishas and Kabuki actors used in their makeup leading to skin diseases. Famously, lead was used in the foundation of as a white paste in Elizabethan time. See below a video for an explanation:

The reason white lead was used in makeup was it was a desirable pigment. White, pale skin was desired as it was a sign of wealth and class. Colourism is still alive and well, as many countries value pale skin over darker skins. For example, India is one of the largest consumers of skin whitening products. In Korea, you are seen as prettier if you have pale skin.

This isn’t the first time toxic or strange ingredients been used in beauty products. Nightingale feces were used in cosmetics in Japan during AD 794-1185 as an anti-aging ingredient. It was known as Uguisu no fun. There are many instances where exotic ingredients or certain ingredients are marketed to have some miraculous properties. When in actuality, they don’t work at all or even worse will actively hurt you.  An example are people rubbing very potent essential oils into their skins that haven’t been diluted, causing deadly rashes.

Luckily now we have more stringent requirements in ingredients, testing beauty products, and advertising. But we never know if there is an ingredient that we deem to be safe now, turns out in the future to be not so safe.

Some practical advice to do your due diligence is:

  1. Researching and ensuring the products that you use do not have toxic ingredients at https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/.
  2. If you have a reaction to a product, stop using it right away. The loss of money is nothing compare to damage to your body.
  3. Don’t use too many new products at once. If you want to try a new product, rotate them out one at a time. This way you can isolate if there is a reaction, which product is causing it.
  • Are Essential Oils Safe? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/are-essential-oils-safe#topical-use
  • Cartwright, M. (2015, August 21). The Most Beautiful, Practical, and Poisonous Uses of Lead. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2015/08/lead_poisoning_a_history_of_lead_in_pipes_makeup_cups_wine_paint_and_gasoline.html
  • Chambers, E. (2005). Makeup and lead poisoning in the 18th century. Retrieved from https://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/objectretrieval/node/111
  • Colorism In South Korea. (2017, November 03). Retrieved from https://www.theodysseyonline.com/colorism-south-korea
  • Fleur-de-Gigi. (2015, September 09). Death By Vanity – The History of Makeup Poisioning. Retrieved from https://fleurtyherald.wordpress.com/2014/11/24/death-by-vanity-the-history-of-makeup-poisioning/
  • Lead poisoning. (2016, December 06). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lead-poisoning/symptoms-causes/syc-20354717
  • Lead poisoning. (2019, January 08). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_poisoning#History
  • Uguisu no fun. (2018, October 05). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uguisu_no_fun

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