When it comes to beauty and makeup, Queen Cleopatra takes the lead.
Make-up is not a new concept. Six thousand years ago, ancient Egyptian men and women painted their eyes, and it turns out, not so differently from how you and I do it today.
We don’t know how exactly Queen Cleopatra’s beauty regime went, but by looking at what Egyptian makeup trends were like we can imagine how it could go. Rather than mica and kaolin clay, she probably used malachite, an ore that made the most delicious rich green shade of eyeshadow. On other days, she’d use Kohl, a black eye-liner formed from a mixture of soot and metals. An application of galena, a blue-grey mineral, would serve to add the final touch.
To redden her cheeks and lips, there was the option of red ochre, a pigment formed from hydrated iron oxide. Found in clay, this would be washed, dried, crushed, and sometimes even burned to get the perfect shade. Cleopatra didn’t neglect her hair and nails either: the leaves and shoots of the henna shrub were harvested to give her hair a red-brown tint.
As you can see, the ancient Egyptians’ makeup was concocted from naturally occurring materials. But just because they didn’t have so many artificial chemicals in them, does it mean they were safer than ours?
Given the choice, most people would not ingest lead, copper, and other hazardous substances as part of their daily beauty regime.
Modern lipstick manufacturers make use of a whole array of chemicals. There’s lead acetate, also known as lead sugar; there’s chromium, and hydrogenated cottonseed oil, and even a mercury-based preservative known as thimerosal. But that isn’t all: despite their glorious technical-sounding precision, the chemicals used in modern lipstick also contain trace amounts of other, naturally occurring, metals. This means your lipstick may come with a side of metal not found on the ingredients list!
There are other chemicals to consider as well. Lipstick contains pigments from colour additives such as D&C Red 7 Calcium Lake, which is formulated by reacting the dye with salts and precipitants such as calcium or sodium to give the lipstick stability.
Looking for a matte finish? Use silica–the fine crystals of which, if inhaled, can lead to lung and autoimmune diseases. Want some pink? Mix in titanium dioxide — which in dust form has been shown to cause cancer in rats.
What’s the big deal with these chemicals, you may ask, if it’s only a tiny bit of them everywhere? After all there’s chemicals in the air too.
Let’s do this slowly with some stats. If a woman ingests an average of four pounds of lipstick over the course of her lifetime, those trace amounts can add up to more significant quantities per item. And since most women use approximately 12 beauty products a day (teenage girls use about 14, men only 6), we are no longer talking about trace amounts.
After a lifetime of ingesting, absorbing and inhaling all these harmful metals and chemicals, we have become walking pharmaceutical labs.
As consumers we still lack adequate protections. In my country, the USA, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act was first signed into law in 1938 after over a hundred patients died from using makeup. Sulfanilamide, an antibacterial containing diethylene glycol, turned out to be a sweet and poisonous solvent.
The government needed to address the crisis, so they gave the job to the Food and Drug Administration. Sadly, the FDA doesn’t have authority to recall a product unless it’s been misbranded or adulterated. At best, this results in self-policing by the cosmetics industry since a law without enforcement authority doesn’t scare anyone.
The FDA, ostensibly a watchdog for cosmetic safety, has only banned eleven out of over 12,000 products since 1938. By contrast, the European Union has banned over 1,328!
Cleopatra didn’t have D&C Red 7 Calcium Lake to contend with, but the makeup of her people was not without its problems. The beautiful green-shaded malachite is nothing other than an ore of copper — which, when ingested too much, can damage your liver, kidneys, and even heart or brain.
Galena is no better, being an ore of lead sulphide. One need only read the “lead” part to realise it can’t be anything good. Lead poisoning can result in constipation, headaches, and dizziness, and, in extreme cases, severe behavioural problems.
Kohl, the black eye-liner was made from soot and a metal…which was usually lead or copper. When it wasn’t, then it would be antimony or manganese, which are lesser known but no less harmful for human health.
Ironically, eyes are the worst place to be applying all these dangerous metals: the thin, near-transparent skin makes it that much more likely to absorb materials. “Couple this”, as dermatologist Dr. Joel Schlissinger put it, “with the mucous membranes being a hop, skip and a jump away from the area where cosmetics are applied and you have a potentially serious problem.”
Perhaps the most distressing news about the makeup industry is that cosmetic products do not undergo a rigorous scientific review before they are rolled out to the public.
In general, chemicals are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but only when used in certain ways. For example, when chemicals are used in items like pesticides and preservatives, or as biocides in plastics, fabrics, flooring and other products. But when these chemicals are used as food or drug additives, their regulation is handled by the FDA.
To register a product, a manufacturer reviews the product for efficacy, following which, the EPA reviews the information, to check if the manufacturer’s claims are true. Here’s the catch: the EPA does not review the item if it’s food or drugs: the FDA does. So if chemicals are used in the product itself, and not added to it for preservation (like in the case of flooring), then the FDA does not flag it as a pesticide, or as harmful.
The FDA regulations don’t require registration and efficacy studies the way EPA regulations do. Only after a product is on the market and proven unsafe will the FDA ask for a voluntary recall. So I ask you, why do harmful compounds require registration when incorporated into inert products, but not when used in our cosmetics and toothpastes?
Or, to put it another way, why are products getting more safeguarding than people?
Cleopatra was not the only queen with a penchant for makeup. Queen Elizabeth I, the trendsetter of England at the time, popularised her particular style of makeup. This involved a ‘snow white’ complexion: rosy red lips and thin eyebrows that showed off a large forehead; all signs of belonging to an upper class.
In 1558, a bad case of smallpox had left the Queen’s skin scarred for life. Determined to cover them up — she did have a reputation to maintain after all — the Queen used ‘Venetian ceruse’, or Spirits of Saturn. This was a mixture made up of lead, water and vinegar: quite a deadly combination! Designed to give her the snowy white look she wanted, the Spirits of Saturn were regularly applied on her face and neck, and often not washed off for weeks at a time. Removing it wasn’t any better; even the makeup removers used back then had mercury in it. It was celebrated for leaving the skin feeling smooth and soft, though in reality, the mercury ate at it.
Though the Queen is said to have died of pneumonia, she suffered from many symptoms common to lead poisoning — hair loss, fatigue, and grey skin; no doubt from the ceruse she was so fond of.
Looking at it one way, Queen Elizabeth’s beauty came at a heavy price: one that led to a lot of health issues, and, ultimately, to death itself.
The global sale of cosmetics tipped the scales at $532 billion in 2017 with sales projected to increase well into the next decade. With such a lucrative market at stake, manufacturers should want to invest in healthful products that will assure their clientele stay alive long enough to keep purchasing them.
If Cleopatra had the benefit of the science behind her beauty regime, she may have gone a little easier on the eye-liner. The good news is, today’s organic cosmetics market — with its less harmful ingredients — was valued at $88.14 million in 2020. Better still, it’s projected to keep growing.
Remember, you have the power of the purse. You owe it to yourselves and future generations to use it by purchasing products committed to consumer safety. Let’s get the lead out.