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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Arsenic as a beauty aid

I was struck by this sentence in the NYTimes article on the Waterford Wedgewood bankruptcy by Judith Flanders:

In 1772, when women started bleaching their hands with arsenic to make their skin a fashionable porcelain tone, Wedgwood immediately advertised black teapots: against this background, hands looked even whiter.


Women did WHAT?

Sure enough. Wikipedia provides more info:
In the Victorian era, "arsenic" (colourless, crystalline, soluble "white arsenic") was mixed with vinegar and chalk and eaten by women to improve the complexion of their faces, making their skin paler to show they did not work in the fields. Arsenic was also rubbed into the faces and arms of women to "improve their complexion". The accidental use of arsenic in the adulteration of foodstuffs led to the Bradford sweet poisoning in 1858, which resulted in approximately 20 deaths and 200 people taken ill with arsenic poisoning.


This seems to imply that there were multiple instances of this. The year 1772 is considerably before the Victorian era, and bleaching seems to me to imply external use rather than ingestion.