Looking Radiant: When Radioactivity Was The Superstar Of Cosmetics

By Simone Sydel··  10 min read
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Looking Radiant: When Radioactivity Was The Superstar Of Cosmetics

After being discovered in 1898, radium became the superstar ingredient in skincare and makeup products that were advertised as "an astonishing new force for betterment" across Europe and the U.S.

Radium was first discovered by French scientists Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898. At the time, it was hailed as a wonder element – radium had the ability to glow in the dark, and people were fascinated by its power.

Little did they know that this radioactive element would eventually cause health problems and even early deaths for many who carelessly used it on the regular.

What's Radium?

Radium is a rare element on Earth and is the heaviest yet most volatile of the alkaline-earth metals, with radioactivity being its most characteristic property.

Its compounds display a faint bluish glow in the dark, a result of their radioactivity in which emitted alpha particles excite electrons in the other elements in the compound, and the electrons release their energy as light when they are de-excited.

Radium is found in uranium ore and is produced as a byproduct of uranium mining. It takes about seven tons of uranium ore just to produce a single gram of radium. Because it’s so dangerous, only a few ounces are produced each year.

What Does Radium Do to the Human Body?

Radium is naturally present in the environment in very small amounts. Because of that, we’re continually exposed to radium and the small amounts of radiation that it releases into the environment. However, radium levels in the environment have significantly increased due to human activity, mainly through burning coal and other fuels.

When we’re exposed to radium, our bodies mistake this metal for calcium, which is why radium tends to concentrate in the bones, where its radiation interferes with red blood cell production. This is why anemia and bone cancer are the most common side effects of high radium exposure. Additionally, prolonged exposure may also cause other, very uncomfortable health conditions, including teeth fracture, cataracts, other forms of cancer, and can eventually lead to death.

Pierre and Marie Curie at work 1904 public domain

Marie and Pierre Curie at work, circa 1904, via Wikimedia Commons.

Medical and Other Uses of Radium

There was a great deal of early interest in using radium in medicine.

The Curies developed a technique for isolating radium, but they refrained from patenting the process in the belief that the potential benefits of the new element – especially in medicine – were too great to keep to themselves.

As predicted, it wasn’t long before radium and X-rays found widespread application in medicine. However, in the early years, the lack of efficiency and sophistication in equipment made it challenging to use X-rays for diagnostic imaging.

Over the next 20 years, these disadvantages were gradually but effectively eliminated so that during World War I, X-ray machines were put to widespread use in medical units and hospitals and permanently installed and mounted on ambulance cars to diagnose wounded soldiers. In fact, Marie Curie personally pushed for the use of these mobile radiography units, which came to be known as Petites Curies

Marie Curie - Mobile X-Ray-Unit

Marie Curie driving a “Petite Curie,” circa 1915, via Wikimedia Commons.

Additionally, radium medication was used to treat many ailments, including hair loss, impotence, atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, rheumatism, gout, sciatica, nephritis, and (ironically) anemia.

This led to a craze for radium-based products, and radioactivity in general, during the 1920s and 1930s.

Radium was added to a wide range of commercial products, including blankets for babies, water dispensers, chocolate, soda water, cigarettes, household products, boot polish, fertilizers, luminous paints, and cosmetics. All of these commercial applications had a common theme: the rays given off by radium had a “vitalizing” effect on the human body.

Radioactive Cosmetics

A number of companies put radioactive materials into cosmetics that were advertised as "an astonishing new force for betterment."


Radior cosmetics containing radium 1918

1918 Radior advertisement, via Wikimedia Commons.

In early 1917, a London-based company called Radior began marketing a line of cosmetic products containing the superstar ingredient radium.

The line consisted of vanishing cream, a face powder in six different shades (Blanche, Naturelle, Rachel, Flesh, Ochre, and Brunette,) a hair tonic, a soap, and assorted under-chin and forehead pads that could be strapped to the face to prevent wrinkles from forming.

The products sold well in Britain, possibly because they were distributed by Boots, as well as Harrods, Selfridges, Whiteley’s, Marshall & Snelgrove's, and other outlets.


Tho-Radia advertisement 1935

1935 Tho-Radia advertisement, via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1933, French pharmacist Alexis Moussali launched a brand called Tho-Radia that consisted of radioactive beauty products sold exclusively in pharmacies.

Taking the name of Marie Curie, the line's formula was prescribed by a certain doctor Alfred Curie whose name can be seen on the advertising poster, but who many people believed never existed.

Tho-Radia's range of products included a cleansing milk, skin cream, powder, rouge, lipstick, and toothpaste. The magic cream contained 0.25 millionth of a gram of bromide of radium for 100 grams of excipient and was meant to eliminate existing wrinkles.

"Science has created Tho-Radia in order to beautify women. It is for them to benefit from it. Whoever wants can stay ugly!" stated the publicity.


In 1933, a new radium-based rejuvenating cream was launched on the British cosmetic market by a company called Artes.

Made in London, using imported radium, it claimed that the active properties in the formula would “assist blood circulation and stimulate the skin cells to clear the complexion and refine the texture of the skin in a wonderful way."

Mud Mask Treatments

Clay masks, also known as complexion clays, clay packs, and mud masks, became very fashionable in the 1920s when they became the first commercially manufactured cosmetic face mask to gain widespread use.

One variation on this trend was to use radioactive mud, the most common form being KemOLite Radio-Active Beauty Plasma, advertised as volcanic mud from the Carpathian mountains. Their advertising campaign said that the KemOLite mud masks would restore smoothness and erase wrinkles from the skin, get rid of acne, blackheads, and rashes, and purify the skin from excess oiliness and shine.

Radioactive Toothpaste

Doramad Advertisement

Doramad advertisement, via Wikimedia Commons.

Doramad, a toothpaste containing small amounts of thorium obtained from monazite sands, was produced in Germany during World War II.

According to a translation published by Oak Ridge Associated Universities, the label advertised the fact that its radioactive qualities "increases the defenses of teeth and gums" and "gently polishes the dental enamel, so it turns white and shiny."

Like radioactive makeup and creams, radioactive toothpaste presented serious risks of radiation poisoning.

Radioactive Energy Drinks

Boldly advertised as "A Cure for the Living Dead" and "Perpetual Sunshine," radium was also sold as an energy drink called Radithor, which was manufactured between 1918 and 1928 by the Bailey Radium Laboratories in New Jersey.

The energy potion promised to tackle diabetes, rheumatism, mental illnesses, fatigue, and sexual decline.

Radithor bottle wikimedia commons

Bottle of Radithor, via Wikimedia Commons.

One of its most famous advocates, American socialite and athlete Eben Byers, who became famous for drinking up to three bottles of Radithor every day for years, actually died in 1932 after parts of his mouth and jaw had to be surgically removed due to a disease known as "radium jaw," or radium necrosis.

It was estimated that Byers drank around 1,400 bottles of Radithor, which led to the Wall Street Journal running the headline: "The radium water worked fine until his jaw came off."

It’s unclear if other deaths were directly linked to Radithor, but that may be due to its prohibitive price as the potion was too expensive for most people to purchase regularly.

The Radium Girls

Besides the Radithor scandal and its catastrophic consequences for this man, Eben Byers was not the first victim of novelty radiation.

The story of the Radium Girls might be an even more famous one: A group of female factory workers who experienced radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with glow-in-the-dark paint at the United States Radium factory, originally called the Radium Luminous Material Corporation in Orange, New Jersey.

The women, who had been told the paint was harmless, ingested deadly amounts of radium by licking their paintbrushes to sharpen them and make them more precise. Each woman would repeat this hundreds of times a day, and some women also painted their nails with the glowing substance for fun because it made them glow in the dark.

girls using radium paint 1922, from- USRadiumGirls

Factory girls painting with radium in 1922, via Wikimedia Commons.

Many of the women later began to suffer from anemia, bone fractures, and necrosis of the jaw, and when they decided to hold their employer accountable, they were sadly met with difficulties to start a legal procedure against them.

For some time, doctors and dentists who were initially trying to diagnose the strange conditions the women suffered from later complied with requests from the companies not to release their data. At the urging of the companies, worker deaths were attributed by medical professionals to other causes. Syphilis was often cited in attempts to smear the reputations of these women.

Grace Fryer, an 18-year-old plant worker who was experiencing symptoms of radiation poisoning, decided to sue, but it took two years for her to find a lawyer willing to take on U.S. Radium. A total of five factory workers, later dubbed the Radium Girls, joined the suit.

The case made history as it created legal precedents and triggered the enactment of regulations governing labor safety standards, including a baseline of “provable suffering.” Additionally, this case established the right of individual workers to sue for damages from corporations due to labor abuse.

The case was finally settled in the fall of 1928, and the settlement for each of the Radium Girls was $10,000 (the equivalent of $163,042.11 in 2022 dollars) and a $600 per year annuity while they lived. All medical and legal expenses incurred would also be paid by the company.

Sadly, not many of the girls lived long enough to enjoy even a little bit of the compensation money, and some of them were too weak to even sit in a courtroom and were provided beds to lay in during the hearings.

The Final Blow

The final blow for companies using radium in their products came in 1938, when the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act outlawed deceptive packaging, making it harder for most of them to promote their outlandish claims.

By that time, the general appetite for these remedies and "betterment" products had already begun to subside.

The few brands that survived, including Tho-Radia's miracle cream, stopped using the active ingredients entirely, making the products radioactive in name alone.

Closing Thoughts

Even though it seems like this happened a long time ago, the shady marketing, the carelessness, and the later attempts to cover up how damaging radium actually was for those exposed to it truly makes you think about the products we put on and in our bodies on a daily basis.

And even though safety around cosmetics, food, and other products is much improved nowadays, can we trust that what we are using is safe?

How many of you will not be surprised when things dubbed as safe for now are made illegal in the future due to safety concerns?

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