Arsenic Pills and Lead Foundation: The History of Toxic Makeup

Learn about poisonous ingredients in ancient makeup and see what lipstick is made of today.

View Images

Look closely and you'll see eye makeup on this limestone bust of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, circa 1355 B.C. In ancient Egypt, people wore lead makeup on their eyes.

The video below explains that modern lipstick is made from waxes, colors, and oils (and depending on what you brand you buy, the color could come from bugs). But throughout their long history, cosmetics like lip coloring, eyeliner, and face powder have been made from a lot of other ingredients—some of which you wouldn’t want to put on your face.

Here are some notable examples. (And to learn what ingredients are in lipstick today, check out the video.)


Cleopatra is famous for her heavy eyeliner, but she wasn’t the only ancient Egyptian with distinctive makeup. All men and women in ancient Egypt painted their eyes with black and green powders. In addition to protecting them from the sun, this makeup was believed to protect the wearer from illness.

And in a way, it actually might have. The black kohl and other powders that they used on their eyes contained lead salts; and in 2010, French researchers argued that these salts increased the wearer’s production of nitric oxide, thus boosting their immune system and preventing eye infections.

WATCH: Ground-up bugs? Rust? There might be some unexpected ingredients in your lipstick.

But this doesn’t mean that you should start lining your eyes with lead. In ancient times, many Egyptians didn’t live past their 30s. Had they lived as long as many people do today, the prolonged exposure to lead would probably have caused health problems, as epidemiologist Jennifer Weuve told Science.


Women in the Roman Empire used lead makeup to whiten their faces, and in the 16th century, English nobles did pretty much the same thing. One of the most famous figures to use lead makeup was Queen Elizabeth I, who used it to cover her smallpox scars.

This mixture of lead and vinegar that Elizabeth used was known as Venetian ceruse, or the spirits of Saturn. While it may have smoothed a woman’s complexion day-to-day, over time it caused skin discoloring, hair loss, and rotted teeth.

United States

In the late 19th century, U.S. newspapers advertised tins of wafers that, if eaten, promised to remove freckles, pimples, and other facial marks. These products contained poison, but that wasn’t a secret—it was right on the label, which read “Arsenic Complexion Wafers.”

Arsenic was known to be poisonous during the Victorian era, but perhaps some women thought that a little bit wouldn’t hurt. Although it can be tolerated in small amounts, taking it was still a serious risk—unless you really wanted that “deathly pallor” look.

This video is part of a series called Ingredients. Each week, host George Zaidan re-creates household products like toothpaste, lipstick, or shaving cream using only natural ingredients. New episodes premiere every Thursday on National Geographic’s YouTube channel.

Comment on This Story