A miracle cream was launched in Paris in 1933. Billed as a “scientific beauty product,” it promised to improve circulation, firm muscle tissue, reduce fat and smooth wrinkles. It was part of a line of cosmetics called Tho-Radia — after thorium and radium, the radioactive elements it contained. Today, no one would intentionally smear radioactive materials on their face, but in 1933, the dangers of radioactivity were not yet fully understood. This mysterious new form of energy, discovered by French physicist Henri Becquerel in 1896, had become imbued with mythical powers. “Before people started to fear radioactivity, all they seemed to know about it was that it contained energy,” said Timothy J. Jorgensen, an associate professor of radiation medicine at Georgetown University, in a phone interview. “There were implications that the energy would help your teeth if they put it in toothpaste and give you a glowing expression if they put it in facial cream. But there really wasn’t any science to show that it was true.” Soon after its discovery, radioactive beauty products were hitting the shelves. The creams didn’t work as advertised but that didn’t stop Tho-Radia cosmetics from becoming popular. It’s full range of products all purported to unleash the benefits of radioactivity, including lipstick and facial powder, as well as ointments, soap, suppositories, razor blades, energy drinks and even condoms.
When the first radioactive consumer products were launched, in the early 1900s, radioactivity was a brand new field of science. Becquerel was credited with its discovery, but the term “radioactivity” itself was coined by Polish-French scientist Marie Curie in 1898, the same year she discovered radium. Medical practitioners found early successes using radium and X-ray imaging, and consumer brands tried to capitalize from radiation therapy’s reputation. “X-rays, another form of radiation, and radium were being used in medicine to treat a variety of diseases,” said Paul Frame, a health physicist at the Oak Ridge Associated Universities, in a phone interview. “Radioactivity, when used properly by someone who knew what they were doing, could cure cancer. We still use radioactive sources today, although not radium, to deal with cancer.” Radium was so popular in the consumer market that many products claimed to be radioactive, even if they weren’t. “It was like saying ‘I have a gold credit card.’ It’s not actual gold, it’s just that gold conveys an idea of value, something important. And radium was like that back in the day,” said Frame. But radiation has an indiscriminate, destructive effect on the human body, and must be targeted at cancerous cells. The idea that putting radioactive elements in everyday products would have beneficial results turned out to be a catastrophically incorrect assumption. How dangerous was it to use radioactive creams? Luckily, they didn’t cause much harm. “These creams didn’t do any good, but they had such low levels of radioactivity that I can’t imagine any kind of an effect. At the end of the day it was a gimmick,” said Frame.
But other kinds of products meant to be ingested proved lethal. A popular one was Radithor, an “energy drink” consisting of distilled water with tiny amounts of radium dissolved into it. Boldly advertised as “A Cure for the Living Dead,” it promised to tackle various ailments from diabetes to sexual decline. Far from being a panacea, it killed its most famous advocate, American socialite and athlete Eben Byers, who became notorious for drinking up to three bottles of Radithor every day for years. He died from it in 1932, and the Wall Street Journal ran the headline: “The radium water worked fine until his jaw came off.” It is unclear if other deaths were linked to Radithor, but that may be due to its prohibitive price — Jorgensen notes that it was simply too expensive for most people to purchase on a regular basis.
Byers was not the first victim of novelty radiation. In the mid-1920s, radium watches became a style marker — Jorgensen calls them “the iPhones of the age.” Wearing the watches didn’t carry much risk, but the factory workers who made them glow suffered terrible health effects. Applying radioactive paint to the watch dials was a delicate but painstaking task that was considered women’s work. These “radium girls,” as the workers came to be known, were instructed to keep the brushes pointed using their lips. Over time, they started to suffer from a condition called “radium jaw,” as repeatedly ingesting small amounts of radium caused necrosis of their bones. However, the radiation sickness, and in some instances death due to exposure suffered by these workers, didn’t hurt the popularity of radioactive products as much as Byers’s passing did, given his status in the public eye. The final blow came in 1938, when the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act outlawed deceptive packaging, making it harder for most radioactive products to promote their outlandish claims. By that time, the general appetite for such remedies had already begun to subside. The few brands that survived — including Tho-Radia’s miracle cream — did away with the active ingredients entirely, making the products radioactive in name alone.
edition.cnn.com, 9 March 2020