Throughout the centuries, women have gone to drastic lengths in their quest to fit in their era’s aesthetic ideal. But how drastic were the beautifying measures of the distant past, exactly? Join us as we take a few steps back in time to take a look at some of the most popular get-gorgeous tricks of yore (Warning: do not try any of these at home!).

Cleopatra, the ancient Egyptian queen renowned for her extraordinary good looks, might not be as ravishing in real life as today’s movies made her out to be, but the beauty rituals that she and the other women of her time partook in greatly added to her allure. These include rimming the eyes with kohl--aside from reportedly offering “protection against gnats, dust and glare,” it was also known to act as an amulet against evil. One of the ingredients of traditional kohl, however, is a kind of lead ore called galena, making the substance extremely unsafe.

Cosmetics are part of the ancient Roman woman’s daily life, and several beauty treatments of the era have been preserved in texts like Ovid’s Medicamina Faciei Femineae (Cosmetics for the Female Face). The makeup options of their time ranged from egg white masks, to foundation made of animal fat, starch, and tin oxide to gladiator sweat. And while Cleopatra’s milk baths might simply be the stuff of legend, Poppaea Sabina, one of Emperor Nero’s wives, was writted to have indulged in the luxurious practice on a daily basis.

The Indians were pioneers of organic cosmetics, and they were able to develop a variety of herbal treatments for everything from head lice to bust enlargement. They also share the fascination for fair skin, and a notable early ancient whitening procedure involves making a paste with of buffalo dung to lighten the skin by a shade or two.

The most vital aspect of a geisha’s look would be her white visage. During the 12th century, a geisha would prep her face by using powdered lead. Also, since teeth tend to look quite yellow against unnaturally pallid faces, geishas in the Heian era (794-1185) have resorted to dying their chompers black using iron fillings. Thankfully, the beauty industry has improved by great leaps and bounds, and today’s geishas now use modern, toxin-free cosmetics that are safe for daily use. However, Japanese women still swear by centuries-old practice of having nightingale dung facials—even Victoria Beckham swears by this posh treatment.

Pallid skin was the look du jour during the Renaissance period, and European women went to great lengths to achieve this glow. However, the whitening products of the time were far from safe. White lead, arsenic, and mercury, though apparently very effective peeling agents, also did a great job on poisoning the body.

(Illustration by Sabrina Lajara)

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