Dr MacKenzie’s Arsenical Toilet Soap
The juice of cucumbers has long been used for the treatment of skin conditions such as sunburn and freckles, a fact noted by Nicholas Culpeper in his Complete Herbal of 1653. During the late 19th century a fanciful theory did the rounds that what made the cucumber so beneficial for the complexion was the presence of a natural arsenic, as the San Francisco Call made clear in its 14th August 1898 edition; “the natural arsenic in the cucumber makes a splendid bleach, and the beauty of it that is that it is perfectly harmless.” The New York Times repeated the canard in September 1909 by commenting, “There is a sort of natural arsenic in the cucumber that makes it valuable as a skin whitener.”
These days we would blanche – perhaps a more effective form of skin lightener – at the thought of using what is a toxic substance in a beauty product but there was a demand for arsenic soaps, which practitioners of the art of quackery were only too willing to meet. One early such manufacturer, a Mr H W Bolton of Bristow and Co in Clerkenwell, London, was hauled up in front of the magistrate not because there was arsenic in his toiletry but because there wasn’t enough of it.
The man was revealingly honest during his cross-examination, as the Times reported on 7th December 1863; “It was made to be sold as a toilet soap, not as a medicinal preparation. Two-and-a-half grains of arsenic were put into every 3 cwt of soap. He did not pretend that this small quantity of arsenic made any difference to the soap. Then why put it in at all? Because it is arsenical soap. But why sell it as arsenical soap? Because there is a demand for it. People think arsenic is good for the complexion, so we make arsenical soap for them.”
The most popular version of arsenical toilet soap in the UK was Dr MacKenzie’s version which sold at one shilling a tablet or for sixpence you could have an unscented soap. The adverts advised that it was “made from the Purest Ingredients, and Absolutely Harmless.” Inevitably, the prospective client was advised to beware of imitations – “Have Dr MacKenzie’s or none.” The soap was also advertised by way of a note which went “Dear Cora, have you noticed how much George’s complexion has improved lately? He has been using Dr MacKenzie’s arsenical toilet soap. Have you tried it? It is simply delicious. Yours with fondest love, Martha.”
The soap was extremely popular and when the manufacturing company floated its shares in 1897, the prospectus accompanying the offer claimed sales of around 340,000 bars a year. Rather like Mr Bolton’s soap, the amount of arsenic in it was negligible, if there was any at all, leaving it somewhat short “of the nature, substance and quality” required by the consumers.
Mercifully, it was not as dangerous as some of its American equivalents, the leading brand of which was Dr Campbell’s Safe Arsenic Wafers. The said doc allegedly used it to cure his own sallow complexion until a bout of yellow fever intervened, leaving his skin, according to the New York Times “a far deeper yellow than Oscar Wilde’s favourite sunflower.” At least his fate was not as bad as a poor girl, who, according to the Indianapolis Sentinel in 1880, “had gradually lost her sight as a result of taking arsenic” and her heartless fiancé decided to wait to see whether her sight came back before pledging his troth.
Worse still was the fate of Hildegarde Walton of St Louis who died in 1911 after having used several boxes of the wafers to cure a skin problem.
Arsenic soaps disappeared in the 1920s and that was probably no bad thing.