American Journal of Nursing 2005 Most Valuable Books of the Year

Dying to Be Beautiful

The Fight for Safe Cosmetics

Gwen Kay

Women, Gender, and Health



190 pp. 6x9

$36.95 paper 978-0-8142-5138-6
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$14.95 CD 978-0-8142-9066-8
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Table of Contents


Dying to Be Beautiful tells the story of how cosmetics came to be regulated in early-20th-century America. In 1906, the Food and Drug Administration was given the power to control food and drugs. Not until 1938 were other products that went into or onto the body, including cosmetics, similarly regulated. The intervening years saw death by depilatory and blindness by mascara and a rise in consumer and grassroots political activism. This book examines who fought for regulation of these inherently feminine products and why it took so long for their goals to be achieved.

Gwen Kay argues that many activists, often at the grassroots level, set the stage for changes in legislation. The activists’ continued outrage, letters, negative press, books, and just plain attention to these matters allowed for the plodding Congressional committee hearings to transform into swift action in the face of a national crisis provoked by a lack of regulatory oversight. Ordinary citizens, doctors as individuals rather than as an association, government officials acting in a personal rather than an official capacity, and even manufacturers concerned about less- reputable industrial cousins tainting the cosmetic industry’s good name all supported the effort to regulate cosmetics.

This is the first book that substantively examines the cosmetics industry in light of the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act. Dying to Be Beautiful pays particular attention to the problems caused by cosmetics and to the possible solutions offered, both before and after implementation of the 1938 law.

Gwen Kay is assistant professor of history at SUNY Oswego.