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Fashion fads come and go—but did you know that some fashion trends are downright dangerous?
One day you're in the in-crowd, and the next day your skin is falling off and your lungs are melting! Join Michael Aranda for a fun new episode of SciShow!
Looking for SciShow elsewhere on the internet?
Arsenic Pigments
Asbestos Fabric
Mercury Hats
Lead Makeup
Celluloid Combs and Other Accessories


Modern fashion trends can be... weird.

I mean, skinny jeans can get a little uncomfortable, yes, and you maybe have a friend who spends more time waxing his mustache and trimming his beard than he actually does bathing himself, but your fashion choices probably won't kill, burn, or poison you. However, people haven't always been so lucky. 

Historically some pretty dangerous clothing, cosmetics, and accessories have come into vogue, endangering their wearers and makers alike. It turns out there are just some things you really don't want to put on or in your body, even if everyone else is doing it. 


 Arsenic Pigments (00:38)

Let's start in the seventeen hundreds, when skirts were huge, cool guys wore wigs, and hottest color in Europe was green. Specifically two special pigments known as Scheele's Green and Emerald Green. In 1775, Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele developed copper arsenate, an intense yellow-green pigment that was more brilliant and longer-lasting than any other green dye. It was also a lot more toxic because it was made with arsenic. 

German scientists soon improved on Scheele's recipe by inventing an even more vivid green dye, copper acetoarsenite, commonly known as emerald green or Paris green. And society loved it. They used it to decorate everything from fake plants to ball gowns. For fashionistas, the danger emerged when they'd sweat through their green gloves, stockings, or socks, and transfer the toxins to their skin. This caused chemical burns and open sores that absorbed even more of the poison. A poisonous dust would also flake off of dyed objects, especially wallpapers or twirling dresses, as people danced at balls. If you breathe in enough arsenic, the poisoning can cause vomiting, ulcers, nerve damage, and eventually even death.

But arsenic pigments weren't the only harmful ones. Some of the first synthetic dyes  for clothing and shoes could cause some pretty nasty health problems all on their own. 

 Aniline Dyes (1:42)

Aniline is a toxic, organic compound that was first isolated from the indigo plant in the 1820s. When ingested it interferes with blood cells' ability to carry oxygen. But in 1856, a chemistry student named William Henry Perkin was trying to use aniline to create an antimalarial drug, when he accidentally created mauveine, a bright purple dye. And soon the aniline dyes were all the rage. Their vibrant red and deep blacks made natural dyes look muted by comparison. But I bet you can guess what happened next. 

People who wore socks, gloves, and shirts colored with aniline or shoes that have been shined with an aniline-based polish often suffered inflammatory skin reactions, headaches, and dizziness because the dye was poisoning their blood. 

 Zinc Chloride Overcoats (02:19)

Our next dangerous trend is more like a single horrible incident. The culprit in this case was zinc chloride, which wasn't used to dye fabrics, but it was used in a coating that went on wool to protect the fabric. That compound had, and still has, lots of applications because it's not highly corrosive and highly soluble in water. But one day in December of 1898, over sixty men were hired to clean the streets of Birmingham, England after a snow storm. They were all given new wool overcoats to keep them warm, nice right? Well most of the men ended up in the hospital with large patches of destroyed skin around their knees and wrists. It turns out their coats had been treated with an excess of zinc chloride, and when they got wet from the snow, the toxin got onto their skin, and then caused serious chemical burns.

 Asbestos Fabric (02:57)

Now, we've talked about how asbestos had been misused over the ages. But before anyone knew that asbestos equals dying, it was often worn for protection. It can form lightweight fibers that can be woven into fabric, and it's famously flame retardant. So from ancient Rome till at least the early 1980s lots of dangerous fire related jobs involved wearing uniforms with some amount of asbestos in them.

This was especially true for firefighters. But, asbestos fibers are incredibly dangerous for human health. Even when they're woven into clothing, asbestos fibers can break off into tiny pieces  that can enter the lungs. When too many fibers build in your lungs, they cause irritation, inflammation, and scarring, hindering your ability to absorb oxygen and making it hard to breathe. Asbestos is also a carcinogen. People who are exposed to large amounts of it tend to develop an otherwise-rare lung cancer called mesothelioma. Even though we were using it as protection, asbestos was doing tremendous damage to our bodies all along. 

 Viscose Rayon (03:46)

Another fabric that proved to be more harmful than we expected is viscose rayon. In the late 1800s, chemists were looking for an artificial substitute for natural silk, which as sexy as it is, is incredibly time-consuming and expensive to produce. 

In 1905, a British company began making a new material. They started with a sticky solution of dissolved wood pulp, which contains lots of the natural plant polymer cellulose. They aged it, dumped it in some chemicals, and eventually extracted fibers that looked and felt a lot like silk. We know those fibers today as rayon. One of the key steps in making viscose rayon involved a compound called carbon disulfide, which is, as you might guess highly toxic! The fabric was safe to wear, but factory workers suffered.

Prolonged exposure to carbon disulfide can damage the cardiovascular and nervous system. This was linked to behavioral and health problems among workers ranging from bouts of mania to strokes. But even with these hazards, the popularity of artificial silk kept booming well into the 1900s.

 Mercury-Coated Hats (04:37)

So you might know the Mad Hatter from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, kind of crazy, drinks a lot of tea. Turns out he might have some basis in reality. The phrase "mad as a hatter" was actually used to describe industrial hat makers in the mid 1800s, who were poisoned by mercury just by doing their jobs. Most hats were felted or made from the fur of small animals. And to make felt, hatters used a process called "carroting," where they washed the pelts in an orange solution containing mercury nitrate to separate the fur from the skin and shrink it into a thin mat.  But the price they payed for dapper hats was mercury poisoning, which drastically harmed hatters' central nervous systems. 

Mercurial Disease, or Mad Hatter Disease, causes extreme emotional states plus physical effects, like tremors and difficulty walking, speaking, and writing. Since these hats didn't poison the general public, the occupational hazards of being a hatter persisted. It took half a century or longer for countries to start banning the use of mercury in the felt hat industry. 

 Lead Makeup (05:28)

But what about cosmetics? One fashion trend that emerged in the 1500s was an obsession with blindingly white skin. In 16th and 17th century England, women painted their faces with a whitening paste called Venetian ceruse. The pigment was made by mixing metallic lead with acetic acid, also know as vinegar, in the presence of carbon dioxide to make lead carbonate, a powdery white lead. This gave the illusion of a snow white face, but over time it would eat away at people's skin, and cause scarring, headaches, nausea, muscle damage, boldness, and eventually early death.

 Radium Makeup (05:57)

In 1898 Marie and Pierre Curie famously discovered radium, in the form of radium chloride by extracting it from the radioactive mineral called uraninite, or pitchblende. After a couple decades of work in 1910 they were able to isolate radium as a pure metal. And this discovery not only thrilled scientific researchers, but it also caused a wave of "science-based" consumer goods to sweep the world. We're talking radium makeup!

For example, the London based Radior, in 1917, used radium in products like face creams, soaps, powders and blush. In the 1930s, ladies in Paris could wear Tho-Radia brand cosmetics. Made from both thorium chloride and radium bromide, apparently the more radioactive elements the better. Thankfully, most of these products contain such low amounts of radium that they were pretty much harmless. Although, it's possible that customers suffered health effects later in life. 

Instead the most serious poisoning cases were in the factories where radium products were made. Especially in the radium girls, a group of about 4,000 factory workers in the United States who painted watch faces with glowing paint and were pretty much bathed in radioactive dust everyday. By the 1920s they began to suffer from anemia, "radium jaw", and bone cancers. Within about twenty years, largely because of their plight, radium branded products had all but disappeared from the market. 

 Nightshade Eye Drops (07:07)

And people weren't just putting toxins on their faces for the sake of beauty, they also put poison in their eyes to look more attractive. 

The poison in question here is atropine, a compound derived from a poisonous plant called deadly nightshade, or Atropa belladonna. Belladonna means beautiful lady in Italian, and it stems from a dangerous beauty practice. In some ancient cultures women were said to put drops of juice from deadly nightshade berries in their eyes to dilate, or enlarge their pupils for that striking doe-eyed look.

Atropine is a smooth muscle relaxant, and your irises are full of smooth muscles that expand and contract to let in different amounts of light. By adding atropine to your eye you're stopping your iris from being able to respond to light. Putting lots of atropine in your eyes is a pretty horrible idea, because constantly dilated eyes can expose your retinas to too much light, damaging the sensory tissues and affecting your vision. Plus, forcing your eye muscles into an unnatural position has been found to affect your internal eye pressure, damaging your optic nerve, which could lead to blindness. 

Today, doctors actually still use atropine for its muscle relaxing and anesthetic effects, mainly to dilate your pupils before eye exams. They just use it in very small controlled doses.

 Celluloid Accessories (08:07)

Finally, let's go out with a bang, with combustible fashion accessories. Celluloid was the most successful early synthetic plastic. It was cheap, light, strong, easily molded to whatever shape you wanted. So, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, celluloid accessories were everywhere. Buttons, jewelry, eyeglass frames, toys and those little hair combs that ladies would wear. But, what people didn't realize was that celluloid was manufactured using a compound called cellulose nitrate.

Cellulose is that naturally occurring plant polymer I mentioned earlier, and when you expose cellulose, like in wood pulp or cotton, to nitric acid, it forms cellulose nitrate, which is highly flammable. So flammable that it's also called guncotton because of its tendency to explode. So with the rising popularity of celluloid accessories came a wave of newspaper articles about combs combusting in people's hair, setting their whole body on fire, just from the heat of a curling iron or a nearby electric lamp. There were even reports of entire stores burning down because they put their celluloid stuff too close to windows and mirrors on hot summer days.


So in comparison those skinny jeans and moustache waxes don't seem so bad now, do they? All told it's much safer to commit a fashion faux pas than have your skin burned, or have your catch on fire all because of a trend. 

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