Culture / History

Radioactive makeup that could kill you

In the quest for beauty, people have smeared cosmetics on their faces that contain some pretty appalling ingredients: crushed bugs, bird droppings, petroleum products, deadly lead, deadlier mercury. And for one brief, lethal period in the 1930s, women pampered themselves with makeup that contained radium.

Glow in the dark Radium makeup

Radium is a highly radioactive element that was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898. It could cure cancer and it emitted a fertile green glow. Surely it was health in a bottle!

As Lisa Eldridge notes in Face Paint: The Story of Makeup, “Many people believed that radium was an almost magical substance that could cure anything. So it’s unsurprising that radium started being used as the new wonder ingredient in makeup.”

The problem is, radium is over one million times as radioactive as uranium — the stuff used to bomb Hiroshima — and exposure to the powerful radiation it puts out can cause cancer. It even killed its discoverer.

More like this: “What happens if you eat arsenic on purpose?”

The worst radioactive cosmetic manufacturer was arguably Tho-Radia, whose products contained not only radium, but thorium, another radioactive element. The French company, which was founded by a pharmacist and a doctor, launched its makeup line in 1933. Tho-Radia offered radioactive face powder, rouge, and lipstick. It also encouraged 24-hour personal irradiation with toothpaste and skin cream that contained the deadly isotopes.

Tho-Radia referred to their products a “scientific method of beauty,” assuring would-be customers that their debut cosmetic offering, La Crème Tho-Radia, “activates circulation, tones, firms tissues, removes fat, removes wrinkles,” all for a mere 10 francs per tube. It was recommended for just about every skin problem imaginable, from scrapes and bruises to frostbite and impetigo.

The company also claimed their face powder prevented herpes.

But that’s not the worst of it.

Do you want to know the worst of it?

Okay, you asked for it …

Alexis Moussalli, the pharmacist who launched Tho-Radia, was also believed to have been involved in the creation of a radioactive product for women called Neothorium, promoted as “a first-rate product for the intimate daily hygiene of women [that] gives them all their vitality and helps them, by toning, to defend themselves against the microbial infections they are exposed to.”

Neothorium was a gynecological tablet designed for internal use. It was recommended for conditions of the cervix and uterus, and was described as “energetically antiseptic” and “absolutely harmless.”

And you thought Gwyneth Paltrow’s jade eggs were horrifying.


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