A Brief History of Modern Medicine and Cosmetics

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The use of chemicals and potentially harmful substances in pharmaceuticals, personal care items, and cosmetics is long.

We could begin with the Opium Poppy.

Papaver Somniferum – Opium Poppy

Opium poppy has been cultivated by humans since at least 5000 BCE. By 1500 Opium was being recorded for pain use (amongst other things). By 1300 BCE Egyptians were recorded tending large fields of Opium Poppies for medicinal and cosmetic use. Egypt is generally regarded as the birthplace of western alchemy. (It should be noted that both China and India both developed alchemy independently of each other as well, leading me to believe there are some universal truths at play here.) Alchemy’s purpose is to find a solution for immortality (as well as to change common metals into gold). Alchemy recognizes three components that all material substances are composed of: Mercury (not the metal, but a term referring to the mind, or conscious), Salt (Physical Body), and Sulfur (the spirit). Read more about alchemy here. These three components were both used figuratively (in pursuit of immortality) and literally (in pursuit of gold). Sulfates, found in many modern soaps and lotions, are derived from sulfur and sulfuric acid.

Throughout biblical times and the middle ages, plants and minerals were dissected, propagated, infused, distilled, and atomically manipulated to create medicines, cosmetics, and perfumes. This included dangerous ingredients including arsenic and lead based powders. People, mostly women, died from cosmetic poisoning.

By the 16th century AD, alchemy had begun to split into two factions. One focused on the discovery of new compounds, their relations, and their reactions. The beginning of modern chemistry. The other focused on the spiritual and metaphysical – the beginnings of the modern form of alchemy. In 1530 AD, a German scholar and scientist named Georg Agricola officially dropped the Arab prefix ‘Al-‘ from alchemy giving us the modern chemistry. In 1661 Robert Boyle published his book “The Skeptical Chymist) which is now believed to be the cornerstone book for modern chemistry. Shortly after this publication, in 1669 the first single element was discovered/isolated (phosphorus derived from urine).

By the 18th century the split between chemistry and alchemy had widened to chemists working along rational and practical routes leading to the birth of modern pharmaceuticals while traditional alchemists continued along the spiritual and metaphysical leading to the development of alternative remedies such as Homeopathy (developed during this time by Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician).

In 1804, German pharmacist Friedrich Sertürner was the first person to isolate and extract the first active alkaloid (chemically active component) from a medicinal plant. The plant he extracted the active alkaloid from was the Opium Poppy, which led to his development of the opioid drug, morphine.

By 1828, the active component Salicin was isolated from white willow bark and was converted through oxidation into salicylic acid. French chemist Charles Frederic Gerhardt converted salicylic acid into acetylsalicylic acid and then marketed as the flagship product by Bayer. It was distributed worldwide by 1899.

From the Ancient Greeks to present, the use of naphtha has been well documented. The Greeks used it to describe any sort of petroleum or pitch. Modernly, Naphtha is widely known as a flammable liquid derived from natural gas condensates, petroleum distillates, and the distillation of coal tar and peat.  Naphtha is the root of the word naphthalene, from which we get the word phthalate.  In 1836, French chemist Auguste Laurent developed a substance by oxidation of naphthalene tetrachloride and named it Phthalic acid. Phthalates are esters of phthalic acid and is a common plasticizer, emollient (softens skin), and emulsifying (blends oils and water without separation) agent making it a very inexpensive and readily available ingredient in modern personal care products and cosmetics. Modern phthalates are derived from phthalic acid and are used in a wide variety of commonly used products from enteric coatings of pharmaceuticals to plastics, children’s toys, paints, clay, medical devices, soaps, lotions, nail polish, lubricants, detergents, glues, and building materials and many, many, more. (source)

Pennsylvania Oil Field 1862

In 1859 Oil Rig workers in Pennsylvania noticed a substance building up on the drills, they called “rod wax” that were gumming up the rigs and periodically needed to be removed. This substance was removed by the rig workers who found that when applied to burns and cuts, their skin seemed to heal faster.  American chemist Robert Chesebrough, whose work originally began with sperm whale oil, took the “rod wax” and extracted the usable petroleum jelly, and began marketing his new product ‘Vaseline’ as a new medicinal product. Because of it’s lubricating and moisture retaining properties, it has been incorporated into skin products such as lotions and creams.

Since the middle of the 20th century, the U.S. National Cancer Institute has embarked on a mission to screen, record, and categorize all the flowering plants in the world in a search for antitumor properties and components. As each of these plants is recorded and archived, the active components are being screened by chemists in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries for potential use in future products.

The problem we are beginning to notice is that when we isolate the active components in plants and use them individually without the rest of the plant, adverse reactions are almost inevitable. For example, when salicylic acid is consumed for an extended period of time, ulcers of the stomach lining begin to present without exception. However, when a tea or tincture is taken of the whole herb (white willow bark), these

Slash and Burn techniques are being used to clear rain forest for cultivated palm fields

adverse reactions are almost non-existent. There is something about the supporting components and the gentler dosage that combats and prevents the ulcers from forming. This phenomena is found in plenty when pharmaceuticals are compared with the original plant. There are, of course, exceptions, but this is what researchers are beginning to discover. So why do we go through the trouble of isolating chemical components and artificially manufacturing nature-identical chemical components for the use of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics? It all comes down to the bottom line. These industries are looking to sate the overwhelming consumer demand for better, more efficient, more natural products without breaking the bank. Availability of many of these plants is either limited, restricted, or off limits as more and more plants are recklessly over harvested and then placed on the endangered plant list.  Many more are being over cultivated in slash and burn plantations in the middle of the rain forest, this has bad publicity – companies don’t want this. Many consumers have also become accustomed to convenience and do not want to bother with natural products that have limited shelf lives or need to be refrigerated. Basically, it is more cost effective to manufacture artificial plant components or use cheap petroleum by-products that will emulsify and preserve far more effectively than a plant-based product does.

But just because it is more cost effective doesn’t mean that it is good for our bodies. It is important to find a level of health that works for your family; whether that means researching commercial products that use good manufacturing practices as well as earth and body friendly ingredients or making them yourself. Both are good options, it just depends on the time and effort you can put into your personal health.


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