We Value Your Privacy

This site uses cookies to improve user experience. By continuing to browse, you accept the use of cookies and other technologies.


Arsenic, Nightshade, and More: 5 Deadly Victorian Beauty Practices

Victorian era beauty ritual or horror movie torture technique?


Downton Abbey might look like all fun and games—ok, to be fair, it gets pretty bleak sometimes—but for the real ladies of the Victorian era, daily life was torture. Here are five of the most dangerous and deadly beauty practices of the Victorian age. Do not try these at home.

1. Arsenic-Coated Accessories

Victorian Beauty Arsenic
  • camera-icon
  • Photo Credit: Nesster / Flickr (CC)

Emerald green was a popular shade for dresses and hair accessories during the Victorian era. The color was achieved by using a toxic and sometimes deadly mix of arsenic and copper. Death from the dye was horrific. Accounts of the death of a 19-year-old artificial flower maker described green vomit, convulsions, and foaming at the mouth in her final moments. An autopsy confirmed that there was arsenic in her stomach, liver, and lungs.

Related: Eternal Beauty: The Death Mask of L’Inconnue De La Seine

2. Arsenic Wafers

The Victorian era was all about “consumption glamour.” Victorians romanticized the tuberculosis epidemic and its effects on appearance; healthy women went to great lengths to achieve that brink-of-death aesthetic. Very pale, translucent skin symbolized both beauty and class, the logic being that wealthy, privileged women didn’t need to work outside. Advertisements for arsenic wafers and face soap promised to “transform the most sallow skin in radiant health; remove pimples; clear the face of freckles and tan; give the complexion an indescribable brilliancy, and lend to every young lady a charm of person which makes her ADORABLE.” Not-so-adorable? The side effects of the arsenic: nervous system damage, kidney failure, hair loss, conjunctivitis, and, ironically, skin lesions.

Victorian Beauty
  • camera-icon
  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

3. Lead Paint 

If arsenic wasn’t your thing, there was always white paint for faking that tuberculosis glow—some even drew blue veins on top of the paint to accentuate the effect. Of course, there were a few drawbacks. To avoid the risk of cracking the hardened paint, ladies had to keep their faces pretty emotionlessness—no smiling and no frowning. There was plenty to frown about though; the paint was usually made from lead, which caused eye swelling and inflammation, baldness, paralysis, muscle atrophy, brain swelling, and death. Like arsenic, lead also caused skin problems, creating wounds and scars that needed to be covered up with even more lead paint.

Related: The Deadly Elixir of Giulia Tofana

4. Corsets 

victorian beauty corsets
  • camera-icon
  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In addition to creating that “withering-away” look that tuberculosis helped popularize, the metal boning in Victorian corsets narrowed the bottom ribs, compressed some organs against the spine, impaired the lungs, and made breathing difficult. They also contributed to muscle atrophy. Some experts even believe that wearing corsets predisposed women to tuberculosis and pneumonia.

5. Nightshade Drops

To get beautiful, glistening eyes, some Victorian women would squeeze in a few drops of orange juice or perfume. Others turned to belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade, which lasted longer and gave them the dilated pupils they were after, but had an unfortunate side effect: blindness.

[via: mentalfloss.com; nytimes.com; atlasobscura.com]

Feature photo: Wikimedia Commons