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The CosmoJourney Podcast Ep.3 - Killer Beauty


(Opening song)

Eve: Hello, dears! We now begin the Killer beauty episode, the last episode of the CosmoJourney, at least for a while, the future is uncertain as of now, as it has always been since we were born, I guess.

Eve: But leaving a possible existential crisis aside, and going straight for today’s topic.


Sal: Today we are aware that we are protected by a myriad of laws in different aspects of our lives.

Eve: And, well, if you didn’t know, now you know. And, as they should, they also include specific legislation for cosmetics products.

Fot: For example, the European Union follows regulation 1223/2009, which covers matters such as ingredients, packaging, testing, and so on [1].

Eve: The regulation of medicines is actually ancient history and evolved until arrive to what we have today [2].

Fot: In defense of our fellow humans back then, nowadays we have way more knowledge on the risks certain products represent and technics to produce safer options.

Sal: On a quick note, currently the concepts of medicine and cosmetic differ, but the line was blurry and many cosmetics were used not only for beauty, but healing as well [3]. And even now, we have, of course, products whose classification is not clear, the so-called borderline products [4].

Eve: Indeed many popular curative ingredients were used in cosmetics, for instance, lead, antimony, mercury, and arsenic [3]

Sal: Yep, our ancestors had a fancy for rather toxic substances and took “pretty hurts” to a different level.

Fot: All minerals naturally found in the environment. They are linked to hepatotoxic, renal toxic, gastro-toxic, dermatotoxic, cardiotoxic, reprotoxic, and genotoxic side effects [5, 6, 7, 8].

Eve: And although the word toxic pops up one too many times for anyone’s good health, these substances were a common part of the daily life of civilizations such as the Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome.

Sal: And speaking of the latter, like in other societies mentioned in this podcast, the Roman standard of beauty included pale skin with rosy cheeks. And was applied especially to women [9]. Eve: No surprise in that Fot: It was a show of status, of not being part of the working class, thus not being forced to spend a lot of time outside. It also could imply being healthy and fertile [9].

Eve: Which was indeed unfortunate, since their foundation and rouge contained lead and mercury. And we already agreed that they are not very friendly, damaging skin and internal organs, and making the process of producing an heir quite difficult [9].

Sal: The removal of body hair was also a thing for all genders. And the formulation of depilatory products could involve the use of arsenic, quicklime, and even antimony. A mix that certainly didn’t provide a smooth ride for the consumer [9].

Fot: Apart from toxicity, these ingredients are highly irritant and abrasive, so they most certainly removed hairs by stripping off skin too [9].

Eve: Antimony and lead were also used in black make-up to be applied as eyeliner and mascara by both ancient Egyptians and Romans [9]. In this case, not everything was a loss. Despite their antihuman effect, these ingredients seemed to have had an antibiotic action. Protecting ancient Egyptians against eye infections [10]

Sal: And it is always good to remember: don’t try to use them at home

Fot: Or any other place, for that matter

Sal: The benefit is not worth the harm caused by them. We have way better and safer options for that.

Fot: Actually, both these civilizations possessed safer options and a variety of different concoctions. Another interesting fact is that our predecessors were aware of the dangers of these substances [9].

So why use them, you may ask?

Eve: Well, it is not exactly known how spread this information was among the common people and it is speculated that the fact of some of these ingredients being scarce or imported, and the fantastical stories revolving their origin provided an exotic appeal to these products [10].

Sal: And so… oh, well, our ancestors enjoyed the glamor and prestige coming from their use and ignored the danger signs [9].

Fot: An outstanding character who had lead as part of her mask of youth makeup in the 16th century was Queen Elizabeth I from England. Both to hide smallpox scars and to help portray a timeless image, and thus serving as a propaganda tool.

Eve: By the end of her life, she was suffering from hair and teeth loss, and facing signs of depression which could be connected to a lifelong use of toxic products. Nobody knows exactly the cause of her death, but some say it could have been caused by poisoning brought on by her makeup [11].

Sal: Later, in the Edo period Japan, the use of lead-and-mercury-containing makeup was also routine for women of the upper ranks of society. Recent archeological findings show how contaminated mothers ended up affecting their children, whose bones presented anomalies and high concentrations of lead [12].

Fot: In fact, lead poisoning may have played a part in the downfall of the Roman Empire and the Shogunate [9,12].

Eve: Just emphasizing that in both cases, these cosmetics were mainly consumed by people with high economical and political power.

Sal: And taking into consideration the fact that these substances cause neurological and reproductive problems

Fot: It is easy to see how this could go downhill. Since infertility and cognitive impairment could generate a political crisis.

Sal: Though it may seem like a distant reality, these toxic ingredients were part of cosmetics throughout the centuries until the early 20th century in different parts of the world [13].

Fot: What we can take as a lesson from all this is that cosmetics have been present in human history for a long time. As many may think, it is not just about vanity.

Eve: Cosmetics are a representation of our knowledge, as well as our values in a certain period of time. And they can be used to reach a goal

Sal: display a statement

Fot: and change fates.

Eve: Although everything is true, we are biased. We are all attending a master's in cosmetology after all.

So this is a wrap, thank you for listening to us.

ALL: See you!

Eve: Or not.



  1. European Parliament. (2009). Regulation nº 1223/2009. European Union. Available at: (Accessed: March 16, 2023)

  2. Penn RG.(1979). The state control of medicines: the first 3000 years. Br J Clin Pharmacol. Oct;8(4), 293-305. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2125.1979.tb04710.x.

  3. Olson, K. (2009). Cosmetics in Roman Antiquity: Substance, Remedy, Poison. Classical World 102(3), 291-310. doi:10.1353/clw.0.0098.

  4. European Comission. (2020). Borderline products. Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from

  5. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. (2010). Arsenic toxicity: What are the physiologic effects of arsenic exposure? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from

  6. Shawn L.P.; Erwin L.K.& Sandeep S. (2022). Mercury Toxicity. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from

  7. Sundar, S., & Chakravarty, J. (2010). Antimony toxicity. International journal of environmental research and public health, 7(12), 4267–4277.

  8. Singh, N., Kumar, A., Gupta, V. K., & Sharma, B. (2018). Biochemical and molecular bases of lead-induced toxicity in mammalian systems and possible mitigations. Chemical Research in Toxicology, 31(10), 1009–1021.

  9. Stewart, S. (2019). “Gleaming and deadly white”: Toxic Cosmetics in the Roman World In P.W. (Ed.) Toxicology in Antiquity, (2nd ed.,301–311)

  10. Bhanoo, S. N. (2010, January 18). Ancient Egypt's toxic makeup fought infection, researchers say. The New York Times. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from

  11. Royal Museums Greenwich. Little-known or unknown facts regarding queen Elizabeth I's death. Little-Known or Unknown Facts Regarding Queen Elizabeth I's Death | Royal Museums Greenwich. (n.d.). Retrieved March 16, 2023, from

  12. Nakashima, T., Matsuno, K., Matsushita, M., & Matsushita, T. (2011). Severe lead contamination among children of samurai families in Edo period Japan. Journal of Archaeological Science, 38(1), 23–28.

  13. Tsatalis, J. P., Aldahan, A. S., Hsu, V. M., Tsatalis, A. E., Brah, T. K., & Nouri, K. (2017). Narcissus’ reflection: Toxic ingredients in cosmetics through the ages. International Journal of Dermatology, 56(2), 239–241.

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