Bad Decisions in History: featuring Belladonna

We’ve covered one type of deadly makeup before in this series, but ceruse wasn’t the only dangerous cosmetic used in history. This one’s a little scarier, because it involves putting poison directly into one’s eyes.

Bad decision: Using belladonna as a beauty enhancement

By its name, belladonna doesn’t sound like a bad thing. It’s a pleasant-sounding word, translating from the Italian to mean ‘beautiful woman.’ It did add a certain kind of luscious beauty, but at a cost.

Made from an extract of nightshade berries, also called atropa belladonna, the resulting eyedrops dilate the pupils, providing a soft and seductive effect, just like in a romance scene of a novel where someone’s eyes ‘darken with desire.’  In Renaissance Italy, this dusky, lustrous appearance of a lady’s eyes was considered to be the height of beauty. Titian’s painting, “Woman with a Mirror” is thought to depict a lady who has used belladonna to enhance the beauty of her eyes.

Titian’s “Woman with a Mirror”

Atropa belladonna, also more modernly called atropine, just so we have lots of names for this, is quite a powerful compound. The ratio of atropine to water for the belladonna drops shows how strong it is, for only 1 part atropine is necessary per 130,000 parts water in order to dilate the pupils. One drop per eye would block receptors in the muscles of the eye that constrict pupil size. As one might suspect, this comes at an immediate cost to vision, resulting in blurriness and inability to focus on close objects. Though this would wear off over time, prolonged use of belladonna could cause permanent vision distortion or blindness. It also carried the side effect of increased heart rate because, let’s not forget, this tincture was made of poison.

Belladonna is derived from deadly nightshade, one of the most dangerous herbal poisons, since all parts of the plant are toxic. The oral overdose for belladonna is only 600 milligrams. Ingesting any part of the plant will have poisonous, possibly deadly, effects, and exposure to the leaves can also irritate the skin.

Photo credit: anne arnould via VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

The name of atropa belladonna  derives from the name of one of the Greek fates, Atropos, whose name means inexorable or inevitable. Atropos is the fate who severs the thread of life, and if you’ve been reading my blog for a long time, you might remember that I’ve found Atropos rather frustrating at times. The connection between Atropos and deadly nightshade serves to highlight just how powerful the poison is, suggesting that some kind of fallout is unavoidable through exposure to the plant.

Still, not all members of the nightshade family are deadly. Potatoes and tomatoes are both part of this group, and though the leaves are poisonous, the roots (potatoes) and fruits (tomatoes) are not. In fact, belladonna is still used today. It’s an ingredient in some kinds of eyedrops, particularly the ones used to dilate the pupil during an eye exam. Chances are, you’ve been exposed to belladonna before, but fortunately in a very small amount and controlled circumstances. Repeated use is certainly not advisable.

Outcome: Blurred vision, difficulty focusing on objects, potential blindness – all of which would probably cause squintiness over time instead of wide-eyed beauty. Rather the opposite of the intended effect. Not to mention the issue of heart problems and skin irritations.


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