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10 Craziest Ancient Beauty Practices

ancient beauty practices

Since time immemorial, women have been subjecting themselves to crazy beauty practices to look beautiful and be more appealing. Today, we have different products easily available on the market. But in ancient times, people had to get creative. From changing the shape of one’s feet to using highly poisonous materials on the face, we bring to you 10 such craziest ancient beauty practices.

1. In China, foot binding was considered a mark of beauty until the 20th-century. Tight binding was applied to the feet of girls at a young age to modify the shape of their feet to look like a lotus. This resulted in limited mobility for women, and some even had to suffer from lifelong disabilities.

Foot Binding
A Chinese woman showing a “golden lotus” foot/ A woman with her feet unwrapped. Image Credit: Lai Afong via Wikipedia, Underwood & Underwood via Wikipedia

Despite the immense pain, women in China kept alive the tradition of foot binding for many years. The concept was made famous by a 10th-century court dancer named Yao Niang. Her feet were bound into the shape of a new moon! The emperor was enchanted by her dancing on just her toe inside a six-foot golden lotus. Eventually, other ladies of the court started trying out the method, and it turned into a tradition. It became a symbol of one’s status along with beauty and sexuality. Down the line, it became so embedded into the Chinese culture that a girl without feet binding had only negligible chances of getting married!

The process starts when the girls are between four to nine years in age. This is the time when the arch of the feet is not fully developed and is easier to bound. The preparation involves the foot being washed with warm, herbed water and animal blood. This was done to soften the feet. Next, the toenails are clipped as far as possible to avoid growth. The toes on each foot were curled under the foot by pressing with great force. This was done until the toes broke. Once the desired lotus shape of the feet was achieved, bandages were used to tightly hold the feet in shape. Eventually, with time, the feet became numb.

Foot Binding
Chinese shoe for bound foot, 18th century. Image Credit: Vassil via Wikipedia

There were many health issues related to this process the most common being infections. Blood circulation to the toes was completely cut off because of the tight binding. This meant that any infection on the toes would never heal and ultimately lead to rotten flesh. Moreover, the mobility of the women with bound feet was restricted to a large extent. Some even had to suffer lifelong disability in lieu of the broken bones and terrible infections. (source)

2. The Greeks and Romans used crocodile excrement in their body-toning mud baths. It was also used in face masks, as it was believed to slow down aging.

crocodile excrement
The Greeks and Romans used crocodile excrement in their body-toning mud baths. Image for representational purpose only. Image Credit: National Library of Medicine – History of Medicine via Wikipedia

The ancient Greeks and Romans used various animals and animal byproducts for medicinal and beautifying purposes. One common belief was that reptile excrement had the power to slow down the aging process. So, the Greeks and the Romans used to fill their bathtubs with a mixture of warm mud and crocodile feces. They would then sit there for hours hoping their skin to magically turn younger. Some of the wealthy people were also known to create face masks out of the excrement and mud mixture. The great Greek physician, Galen, noted that women who desired luxury preferred crocodile dung face masks to complete body baths. This was definitely one of the grossest beauty practices, but still, nobody was harmed while trying it out. (source)


3. In 1936, Isabella Gilbert invented the “Dimple Maker” so that dimples could be “made to order!” The device consisted of a spring with two tiny knobs that press into cheeks to create the dimples.

Dimple Maker
The demonstration of the Dimple Maker. Image Credit: Weird Universe

Who doesn’t love dimples? There are so many people who wish they had dimples. If only there was a machine that could magically create dimples on our cheeks! In reality, there existed one such machine. Known as the “Dimple Maker,” it was created by Isabella Gilbert in 1936. The machine came with just simple instructions: “Wear dimplers five minutes at a time, two or three times a day, while dressing, resting, reading, or writing. Look into the mirror and laugh. There will be a semblance of a line where you should always place the dimplers until your dimples are made.”

The device consisted of a spring-like contraption with two rounded knobs. The knobs were to be placed where the dimples are desired. So, the knobs would just press the cheeks hard to create two depressions on both sides of the face. The doctors at the American Medical Association denounced the machine in 1947, as they believed that the prolonged use of the machine might lead to cancer. (source)

4. Tho-Radia, a French cosmetics brand, manufactured products that contained radioactive chemicals like thorium chloride and radium bromide. They were supposed to provide a “radiant” skin.

Ad for Radior cosmetics which the manufacturer claimed contained radium/ “Tho-Radia powder” box, “based on radium and thorium, according to the formula by Dr. Alfred Curie”, on display at the Musée Curie, Paris. Image Credit: Radior cosmetics via Wikipedia, Rama via Wikipedia

With the discovery of radium by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898, the entire scientific community jumped on it. It was not long before radium came to be used in medical and commercial requirements. Beauty is one segment that accepted radium with open arms.

Many cosmetics companies started infusing radium into their products with the promise of a more “radiant” skin. In 1933, Alexis Moussali, a pharmacist, and Alfred Curie, a Parisian doctor, joined hands to launch a range of French radioactive beauty products. The product range was called “Tho-Radia” and included a cleansing milk, skin cream, powder, rouge, lipstick, and toothpaste. The products were marketed as a scientific method of beauty. Advertisements showed a highly-glowing face that can be achieved by using the products. Furthermore, each advertisement carried claims such as “Stimulates cellular vitality, activates circulation, firms skin, eliminates fats, stops enlarged pores forming, stops and cures boils, pimples, redness, pigmentation, protects from the elements, stops aging and gets rid of wrinkles, conserves the freshness and brightness of the complexion.” (source)


5. Belladonna or deadly nightshade was used in eye-drops by women to dilate the pupils of the eyes to make them appear seductive.

Belladonna eye-drop
Belladonna or deadly nightshade was used in eye-drops by women to dilate the pupils of the eyes to make them appear seductive. Image Credit: Puusterke via Wikipedia, AdinaVoicu via Pixabay

Crave seductive eyes? Put a drop of deadly nightshade into your eyes! That’s what ancient Italian women used to do!

The common name “belladonna” for the poisonous nightshade came from its use by women to look more appealing. Bella donna is Italian for “beautiful lady.” Women used to prepare drops from the plant and apply it to their eyes. This would give a pupil dilating effect which was considered seductive at that time. The drops act as a muscarinic antagonist, which means that it works by blocking the receptors in the muscles of the eye which, in turn, constricts the pupil in size. It was quite dangerous, as prolonged use had the potential to lead to permanent blindness. (source)

6. Ancient dentists recommended Portuguese urine as perfect teeth whitening ingredient. Urine jars from Portugal were shipped because people thought that it was a more powerful cleansing agent than “home-grown” Roman urine.

Portuguese urine for teeth whitening
Ancient dentists recommended Portuguese urine as perfect teeth whitening ingredient. Image Credit: frolicsomepl via Pixabay, Kjerstin_Michaela via Pixabay

The first people to invent toothpaste for oral hygiene were the Egyptians. The ancient toothpaste was nothing like the ones we use today. They were just a mixture of pumice, a very light and porous volcanic rock, and wine vinegar. Next in the oral hygiene race were the Romans. They did not have any fancy kinds of toothpaste but a totally organic solution to oral hygiene. It was urine.

Daily teeth care for the Romans involved using a local toothpaste where the main ingredient was human urine. Wealthy Romans were ready to pay enough money to get their hands on the famous teeth-whitening toothpaste. Also, the urine was imported from Portugal. It was believed that Portuguese urine had more efficiency when it came to whitening than Roman urine. Sounds bizarre, but it’s true. Later, the Portugal urine also made its way to mouth washing liquids in the 18th century. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, their oral hygiene methods were lost.

If we look into the science behind it, the Romans were actually on to something. Urine contains ammonia which is a great cleansing agent. Our modern toothpaste and mouthwashes contain ammonia to provide the whitening effect. (source)


7. Beauty patches, also known as “stick-on beauty marks,” were a cosmetic staple in the 1700s. The patches came in a variety of shapes and sizes, like stars, moons, hearts and even more intricate designs like a horse and carriage.

Beauty patches
Beauty patches, also known as stick-on beauty marks, were a cosmetic staple in the 1700s. Image Credit: Fashionable Forties, Witness2fashion

During the 18th century, beauty patches were all the rage. They were used to cover up pimples or blemishes on the skin. This was one of the earliest examples of the use of beauty techniques to convert facial flaws into fashion statements!

Smallpox occurrences in the 18th century were majorly responsible for the emergence of these beauty patches. Very few people survived the pox, but for those who survived, they were left with scars. Enter beauty patches to hide those scars. The first beauty patches were made from costly fabrics such as silk or velvet. They were then coated with an adhesive so that they could be stuck onto one’s skin. They came in a variety of decorative shapes like crescents, circles, hearts, triangles, stars, etc.

Eventually, the beauty patches turned into a cosmetic staple. People started adorning them even though they had no blemishes or pimples to cover. According to the  Pitt Rivers Museum, “Women pasted them on the face, neck, and breast, according to a newly emerging language of symbolism: a patch above the lip meant coquetry, on a forehead, grandeur, and at the corner of an eye, passion.” (source)

8. By the late 1800s, some women would use a blue or violet pencil to trace their veins to make their skin appear paler.

Women would use a blue or violet pencil to trace their veins to make their skin appear paler
Women would use a blue or violet pencil to trace their veins to make their skin appear paler. Image Credit: Wikipedia, Wikipedia

In the 1800s, beauty was defined by a neatly groomed hairstyle, a long neck, a tall and slender body with abundant bosom and hips. All these features had to be further accentuated with tight and perfectly shaped body cladding clothing. To further accentuate the physical features, padding was used to achieve the required shape and size. Amidst all these, there was one beauty practice that sounds a bit bizarre.

Women used blue or violet color pencil to draw out their veins in all the areas where the skin was visible. This was mostly the neck and the chest area. This was done to give out the illusion of a stark white complexion, even under yellow-colored lighting! Obviously, this was prevalent among the high class and rich women as they alone had the time and the help for such beauty rituals. (1, 2)


9. Poisonous bugs were crushed and made into a paste to be worn on the lips so as to give out a reddish tinge.

Poisonous bugs were crushed and made into a paste to be worn on the lips. Image Credit: Stephencdickson via Wikipedia

Lips are considered to be one of the most sensual parts of the female body. A woman wearing a red lipstick stands out in a crowd and makes people turn their heads. The first use of lip color can be attributed to the Mesopotamians. They used to crush gem-stones and beeswax and apply that to their lips to color them. But it was the Egyptians who went one step further.

They first started by using seaweed, bromine mannite, and iodine to create distinguished colors. The colors they were able to create ranged from hot tangerine to pink. Moreover, when bromine mannite was mixed with iodine, it gave out a deep purple shade. Then Cleopatra came up with her own signature color that she achieved by crushing poisonous beetles. The creation of this color was not easy as it required around 70,000 beetles to create just one pound of the dye. So much for beauty! (source)

10. In the 16th century, women used a skin whitener on their face called “Venetian Ceruse” that was made of highly poisonous lead carbonate.

Venetian Ceruse
Venetian Ceruse was used by women to get that stark white complexion. Image Credit: Wikipedia, Wikipedia

Skin whitening is one of the largest growing segments in the beauty industry today. And this trend is not something new. A fairer skin has been associated with beauty since time immemorial. White skin is a symbol of status, and people in ancient times took extreme measures to get that white glow.

Women in the 16th century resorted to the use of a product known as the “Venetian Ceruse.” Commonly known as “Spirits of Saturn,” it was used as a skin whitener. It was also considered the best to be available during the ancient times.

If it was so good, then why did its use disappear? As efficient as it might have been, the product was made from lead carbonate. The white lead used in the product was the cause of lead poisoning in many women. It also led to skin damage and even death if used for an extended period.

The product has been known to cause the death of Maria Coventry, Countess of Coventry, in 1760. She was just 27 years old. She regularly used Venetian Ceruse and it led to blemishes on her skin. To hide those, she applied more of the product, eventually dying of lead poisoning. (source)

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