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10 Disgusting Beauty Treatments

by Ben Gazur
fact checked by Jamie Frater

How far are you willing to go to get the hot new look? Much of human history has been driven by the desire to present ourselves in our best light. As it turns out, there’s not much that people won’t do in their struggle to be attractive. Here are ten of the grossest things people have tried in the name of beauty.

10 Eel Exfoliation Bath

Eel Bath

Photo credit: Christopher Jones/REX via The Guardian

Some very expensive bubble baths leave you feeling slimy after you get out of the tub. Their manufacturers prefer to say “moisturized”—but for one treatment, “slimy” is definitely the word. To get that perfect glow in their skin, some people in China are taking baths filled with tiny eels.

Each eel is about the size of a pencil. They wriggle over the body and nibble at the dead skin covering it. This leaves the youthful-looking living skin underneath shining through. Unfortunately, the eels haven’t learned to differentiate between the skin on the outside and the internal membranes.

A gentleman wearing loose underwear in the eel bath felt a sharp pain and found that an eel had found its way into his penis. It took a three-hour surgery to remove the errant fish and prompted other countries to watch out for those looking to import the eels.

9 Radiation Therapy


Whenever a scientific discovery is made, there’s always a scramble to find a marketable use for it. Sometimes, this benefits mankind; sometimes, it leads people to smear their faces with radioactive elements.

The eerie glow of radiation made newly documented elements like radium and polonium seemed like ideal boosters for that healthy glow everyone wants. The mysterious radiation rays were quickly touted as cure for medical ailments and were also used in cosmetics. Radiation was added to face creams, soap, rouge, and powders. For those wanting extra sparkly teeth, there was radioactive toothpaste.

Of course, the downside to these radioactive products was that instead of health, they caused untold numbers of cancers. Sores and hair loss are common side effects of radiation poisoning, as well. Those who worked with radium developed bone necrosis and incurable cancers. This soon put an end to the fad for radioactive products.

8 Lead, Arsenic, And Mercury

Arsenic Complexion Wafers

While today’s must-have is a tan, which suggests we have the leisure to be continually on the beach, in the past, the reverse was the case. To have a tan showed that you spent your days toiling outside. To cultivate a pale face, you needed the money to stay indoors. Or you could take the shortcut of covering your face in white lead, as people have throughout history. The problems with this were not unknown even then. The lead would rot the skin, requiring ever more to be used to cover up the effects of the treatment. The skin would break open as it thinned. Lead also causes aggressiveness, headaches, vomiting, seizures, and eventually death—then you have the perfect pale flesh.

Those wanting to remove spots, freckles, and other skin problems could turn to another dangerous element. “Dr. James P. Campbell’s Safe Arsenic Complexion Wafers” promised to clear the complexion. Ironically, one of the organs hit hardest by arsenic poisoning is the skin. An overdose of arsenic can lead to hair loss, bloody vomit, diarrhea, and convulsions. But at least you won’t have freckles.

While those products are thankfully things of the past, there is a current vogue for everyone to appear with as light skin as possible. Skin lightening products very often contain mercury, an element which can lead to many horrible side effects, especially kidney problems. You may end up with a fashionably Western face but a deeply unfashionable dialysis machine.

7 Bee Stings

You should always be wary of following celebrity advice. Being pretty and a good actor does not make you a doctor. Gwyneth Paltrow has gone on record about her beauty treatments, and one of them has a sting in the tail.

The actress told an interviewer:

I’ve been stung by bees. It’s a thousands of years old treatment called apitherapy. People use it to get rid of inflammation and scarring. It’s actually pretty incredible if you research it. But, man, it’s painful.

The treatment is painful for Paltrow, but it can be deadly, and not just to the bees. One case of liver failure has been linked to apitherapy.

Those unwilling to be actually stung by bees can simply buy cosmetic products containing the venom. Not that it will do anything except speed the decline in bee populations and your bank balance.

6 Fish Pedicure

Fish Pedicure

Photo credit:

Fish aren’t picky eaters. If you dip your toes into a tank of Garra fish, they will quickly dart in and nibble off the dead skin from even the smelliest feet. They are toothless and usually stop at eating the tough outer skin, but there are reports of them taking their feeding frenzy too far and causing bleeding. While the risks of getting an infection from the fish is thought to be very low, there are dangers to dangling your feet in water used by both fish and other clients. Fungal infections could easily spread, and bacteria in the fish tank could cause boils.

Leaving aside the “ick” factor of being eaten by fish that live solely on other peoples’ stinky feet, some legal areas deem the fish to be unsanitary. One Arizona fish spa was shut down, as cosmetic products had to be disinfected and dried before reuse—obviously not an option with fish.

5 Tapeworm Diets

Losing weight should be easy. If you burn more calories than you consume, your weight goes down. But food is so delicious that many find reducing their caloric intake is too hard to do. So they look for ways to increase their calories burned (other than exercising, obviously).

One way of losing weight is to get yourself a friendly tapeworm to take up residence in your intestines. This worm will eat a portion of your food, and it will grow rather than your waistline. While there is evidence that people in the past sold pills which supposedly contained tapeworms, there are recent cases of people actually going through with it. Tapeworm infections cause weight loss and loss of appetite—but also pain, malnutrition, diarrhea, blindness, convulsions, and death.

4 Placenta

The placenta is an organ that develops in pregnant mammals to filter oxygen and nutrients to embryos and remove waste products. Most animals will eat the placenta after birth to regain its nutrients. Some humans do, too. Some aren’t content with leaving it at that, though.

Because of their association with youth and birth, some face creams include placenta in the hopes of it passing some of that goodness on to the user. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that they work. The most common form of placenta used comes from sheep, but those with deep pockets and no gag reflex can also buy creams with human placenta.

While placenta may not do much for the face, the side effects can be alarming. Its use in hair products has caused girls as young as 14 months old to begin to develop sexually due to the level of hormones it contains. Stopping use of the products reversed the effects.

3 Snails

Snail Treatment

Photo credit: Dennis Gray/AP via The Guardian

Snail facials are a beauty treatment in which live snails glide across your face. The trail of gel they leave behind is said to fight the signs of aging. Snails have been used for thousands of years to treat inflammation, so there may be something to it. Snail facial specialists say they reduce scars, acne, and stretch marks. There is no scientific confirmation of this, however—so perhaps wait before you plop some snails on your face.

For those who cannot stand the idea of snails rasping at their skin with their radula (a toothed, tongue-like structure) you can buy creams that contain snail gel. The snails exude the gel, which is said to be more effective when they are stressed. There is no information on how the makers of snail gel cream go about stressing out their snails, but it’s unlikely these creams are animal-friendly.

2 Bull Semen

In the crowded marketplace of cosmetics, you need something that separates you from the competition. One way of doing that is to reveal that the magic ingredient in your face mask and hair conditioner is bull semen.

The inventor of the semen hair treatment had been looking for a high-protein recipe and apparently thought the best option would be bull sperm. She comforts her customers by saying, “It really works. The semen is refrigerated before use and doesn’t smell. It leaves your hair looking wonderfully soft and thick.”

If you want the glamorous look without the mental images, Imprivo makes a range of products containing the coyly named BSP (Bull Seminal Plasma).

1 Foreskin Facials

“As smooth as a baby’s buttocks” is a common expression. Some cosmetics companies have taken that cliche and run with it. Taking the foreskins left over after baby boys are circumcised, they have turned human flesh into cash in the bank.

There are face creams which use the cells from foreskins to enrich their products with growth factors, collagen, and other proteins that are claimed to reverse the signs of aging. Because the foreskin contains stem cells, a single one can be grown in the lab to produce enough cells for thousands of treatments. This has not reduced the controversy around using them as an ingredient, especially among those who see circumcision as a form of genital mutilation.

For those who want the direct benefits of stem cells, it is now possible to have cells derived from foreskins injected into your face. The fibroblast cells reinforce the structure of the skin, it is claimed, and users say they detect improvements in their appearance. With each vial of cells costing around $1,000, though, you might hope for more dramatic results.

fact checked by Jamie Frater