The word toxin is a scary word. It comes up a lot in my office with clients who are curious about Botox—but afraid to try it. I understand their shaking knees. Botox is a brand-name, but we all know it derives from botulinum toxin. It even has -tox in the name! Oh, my! Actually, there’s no reason to hide the fact that Botox comes from a toxin. Like all toxins, botulinum is a naturally occurring substance and one of many that human creativity has harnessed for the good. Botox is a non-toxic use of a toxin. Taming toxic plants for medical and cosmetic use is a practice as old as the hills.
Cleopatra is one of most famous women in history to use a toxic plant for cosmetic purposes, over 2,000 years ago. Ever heard of Atropos, one of the Three Fates in Greek Mythology? His job was to choose how people would die. From him came the name Atropin, the toxin found in the deadly nightshade plant. Used today for things like spasm treatments and heart-rate stabilization during anesthesia, in Cleopatra’s time, Atropine was used to beautify. The Egyptian queen used the extract to dilate her pupils, in hopes of having more seductive peepers.
More than a thousand years after Cleopatra, this cosmetic use of the nightshade plant was going strong. Women during the Italian Renaissance used the berries of the plant to enlarge the pupils of their eyes, again for cosmetic reasons. This explains why the nightshade plant is also known as belladonna, which is Italian for beautiful lady.
Belladonna is just one of many toxic plants that was harnessed for cosmetic use long before Botox. But unlike Belladonna and its other predecessors, Botox is not just for the rich and famous. I think its appearance marked an important moment in history: the moment when the most powerful of cosmetic treatments could no longer be hoarded by the excessively rich or powerful to distinguish themselves from the masses. The masses are using it! They can afford it!
So, let’s review: It’s affordable. It’s quick. It works. (Boy, does it ever work.) And in a professional’s hands, it is no more dangerous than anything else in your medicine cabinet—or your makeup drawer.