Deadly beauty


Atropa Belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade.  Image credit: Donald Macauley


Standards of beauty may have changed over the centuries, but one thing has stayed the same: women - and men - have cared about how they look since they first discovered reflective surfaces!  In our weekly Beauty: then and now feature, we look at some of the ways people have tried to look, feel and smell good over the course of history, and suggest some modern ways to achieve the same effect!

Women - and men - have done crazy things in the name of beauty for thousands of years, but one of the craziest has to be the use of atropa belladonna to brighten the eyes.  Named for its cosmetic use, the word belladonna actually means “beautiful woman” in Italian, such was the regard for its beautifying properties.  Women would use drops of belladonna in their eyes to dilate the pupils and bring a flush to their cheeks, making their eyes appear bigger and brighter and enhancing their fair complexions.  Why was this crazy?  Because belladonna is actually one of the most poisonous plants found in the Eastern Hemisphere: it’s in the same family as deadly nightshade, and is believed to have been the poison that the Roman noblewoman Livia used to murder her husband, the Emperor Augustus!

Did it work?

Just like last week’s ceruse, for all its faults, belladonna technically did what it was supposed to: the deadly drops did indeed dilate the pupils and flush the cheeks, giving women a girlish, wide-eyed look that was considered extremely attractive around the time when belladonna was popular.  But again, the dangerous side-effects of belladonna use far outweighed its cosmetic benefits.  Atropine, the chemical that causes the pupils to dilate, is also responsible for blurred vision, nausea, confusion, hallucinations, and a painful and unpleasant death.  The tiny amounts women used to use for their eyes were enough to cause permanently distorted vision and severe headaches, and it only took a shockingly low dose to cause a fatal reaction.  Suffering for beauty is one thing, but using belladonna was a great way to die for it.

Belladonna drops achieved a girlish, wide-eyed look, which for a long time was considered extremely attractive.  Image credit: Nutschig

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The lutein in cucumber doesn't just brighten your skin: studies show it actually keeps your eyes healthy by fighting cataracts and macular degeneration!  Image credit: Frank Vicentz

There really isn’t any safe way to dilate the pupils long-term: eyes are delicate and complex organs, and it’s best just to let them do their thing!  But if you like the bright-eyed look, there are plenty of ways to enhance your eyes without resorting to dangerous chemicals or messing with the eyes themselves.  Products and facials containing cucumber extract are great for evening skin tone around the eyes: cucumber is a natural astringent, which helps reduce puffiness; and it contains lutein, a natural skin brightener that can even out dark undereye circles.  If the skin around your eyes is healthy, then skillfully applied makeup is a great way to enhance your eyes.  Clever combinations of eyeliner, highlighter and eyeshadow can safely make your eyes appear bigger, bolder and brighter, and a great way to frame your eyes for look-at-me glamour is with bold lashes, either with mascara, tinting or a set of lash extensions.  But the most important tip for bright, healthy eyes?  Don’t put anything in them that hasn’t been recommended by your optician - especially deadly nightshade!


Eye makeup and lash extensions can safely enhance the natural shape and colour of your eyes.  Image credit: courtney murray rhodes