Revisited Myth # 60: Women ate arsenic to lighten their complexions.



This isn’t a myth, but it is probably exaggerated.

Unlike today when everyone wants a tan, women in previous centuries thought pale was prettier. Pale skin was a status symbol, since it showed that the woman did not have to labor outside in the fields like the peasants. There is some evidence that women ate arsenic to lighten their skin, or at least to minimize blemishes. But according to 18th-century apothecary specialist Robin Kipps, arsenic actually darkens the skin, so anyone trying this should have noticed that and abandoned the effort.

Evidence comes in the form of the 1902 Sears Roebuck catalogue that offered arsenic wafers for men and women. It was more for clearing up skin than for whitening, but I mention it nonetheless.  arsenic_wafers

Every lady a possible buyer of this celebrated complexion preparation and beautifier. Regular size, also large size boxes, can be sold constantly at a very good profit.

PERFECTLY HARMLESS when used in accordance with our directions, it possesses the “Wizard’s Touch” in producing, preserving and enhancing beauty of form and person in male and female by surely developing a transparency and pellucid clearness of complexion, shapely contour of form, brilliant eyes, soft and smooth skin, where by nature the reverse exists.
THE GREAT TROUBLE HITHERTO has been how to make this beautifying principle safely available and at the same time avoid what is detrimental and injurious. Arsenical solutions have utterly failed, and until a recent discovery by a French physician and chemist, the internal administration of arsenic has been attended with more or less danger as well as disappointing results. In the direction for which they are intended their effect is simply magical, the most astounding transformation in personal appearance being brought about by their daily use. Even the coarsest and most repulsive skin and complexion, marred by freckles and other disfigurements, slowly changes into an unrivaled purity of texture, free from any spot or blemish whatever; the pinched features become agreeable, the form angular gradually transforms itself into the perfection of womanly grace and beauty. Used by men the favorable results are the same. All danger is averted in these complexion wafers, prepared by our experienced chemist, and the remedy taken in the manner directed on each box is absolutely innocuous, while the peculiar virtues of the remedy remain unimpaired and intact. Taken as directed the wafers will be found a positive, safe and magical specific for all sorts of skin troubles, unsightliness and imperfections, being in reality the only beautifier of the complexion, skin and form known. Guaranteed a sure cure for freckles, moth, blackheads, pimples, vulgar redness, rough, yellow or muddy skin, and other facial disfigurements are permanently removed and a deliciously clear complexion and round up of angular forms assured.

LADIES, YOU CAN BE BEAUTIFUL. No matter who you are, what your disfigurements may be, you can make yourself as handsome as any lady in the land by the use of our French Arsenic Wafers. We recommend ordering one dozen large boxes and then carefully follow our directions.

No. 8R99 Our price, per dozen boxes, $3.30; per box of 50 treatments… 35¢
No. 8R100 Our price, per dozen boxes, $6.00; per box of 100 treatments, 67¢
If by mail, postage extra, per box, small, 3 cents; large, 3 cents.

Some women did something else that was just as bad as arsenic. Since the early 1500s, some upper class European women (think Queen Elizabeth I and her ladies-in-waiting) used a skin lightener called ceruse. Made with white lead, ceruse was also used in making paint. This probably caused damage, perhaps even death, if the woman applied it to her face often enough. It was still available in France in the middle 1700s, but I’ve seen no evidence that American women used it. 


3 Responses to Revisited Myth # 60: Women ate arsenic to lighten their complexions.

  1. janice says:

    i was led to believe that arsenic was for more beautiful skin. thank you for the information

  2. Mark S. says:

    In my opinion, a woman with pale skin is still more attractive than one with a tan.

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