From Toxic to Trusted: A Brief History of Botox

Some of the world’s favorite inventions were discovered by accident. Even day to day items like plastic or rubber, useful as they are, were not created on purpose, and Botox is no different. From its humble beginnings as a loathed toxin responsible for a particularly nasty and deadly form of food poisoning to its current status as a medical and cosmetic favorite, Botox has had something of a meteoric rise in the last 17 years, even if it took more than 100 to get to that point.

Today, Botox is known as one of the most popular non-surgical cosmetic procedures in the world. It works by temporarily paralyzing muscles in the face, causing wrinkles to temporarily disappear. The use of Botox has expanded beyond just mitigation to prevention—younger and younger people are turning to Botox to quiet their early concerns over aging, so they are not only getting rid of wrinkles but preventing them from having a chance to appear at all. However, Botox was not always the cosmetic behemoth that it is now, and it roots lie in an unusual place.

Botox is made from a naturally occurring bacteria called Clostridium botulinum. It occurs in snake oil and healthy digestive tracts of some animals but is also responsible for a dangerous form of food poisoning called botulism. It still occasionally pops up today, though it is now much better understood than in the old days, and modern medicine is better equipped to deal with its ravages.

Botulism was first discovered in the 1800s when it caused a series of deaths in both Germany and Belgium. Scientists set about discovering what exactly within the foods was causing illness, and in doing so, likely saved many lives. Though the bacteria itself was discovered at this point, the possible positive side effects of Botulinum toxins would not be discovered for over a century, and the toxin was only associated with sickness for many years.

In the 1950s, Botulinum toxin A (the main component of Botox) was purified, and scientists of all sorts began performing small-scale testing with the substance for things as shocking as “relaxation,” but it wasn’t until the 1970s that this practice became more common. At this point, though, no one dreamt that the biggest use of Botox would one day be as a cosmetic substance.

At the beginning of the next decade, Botox was acquired by pharmaceutical company Allergen. At the end of the decade (in 1989) the FDA approved Botox for Therapeutic use. However, it was another 13 years before Botox was used as an aesthetic treatment. Because Botox was the first product of its kind approves for cosmetic use, a huge amount of buzz was generated long before the FDA approved Botox for cosmetic use. As far back as the ‘90s, people were full of excitement for this product with promising effects, so it is no wonder that the media touted Botox as a miracle when it finally came to market. This led to some misuse of Botox in its early days as a temporary aesthetic product, everyone wanted it and they were not particularly concerned with getting it through the proper channels with trained professionals administering it. Like anything effective and new, Botox enjoyed a prolonged boom in the mid-200s. In fact, Allergen (the company which owns and produces Botox still today) says that over 3 billion Botox cosmetic procedures we completed in just 2005.

Since it debuted to a captivated audience, Botox has not declined in popularity (though it is true that yearly procedures do not generally still total in the neighborhood of 3 billion). In fact, as of last year, Botox saw more than a 5% rise in popularity year over year; it has also paved the way for a more than 40% rise in cosmetic procedures. Now, it is generally understood and accepted that even though Botox is not a surgical procedure, it should not be administered by anyone who has not received quite a bit of medical or cosmetic education. In the less than two decades since it was first used for cosmetic purposes, health professionals have fine-tuned the injection process so they can control, among other things, where exactly the facial paralysis occurs, and how extreme that paralysis is. Because the toxin will eventually be burned off by the body, regular users will need new Botox injections several times a year in order for them to remain effective.

Years after Botox gained popularity, testing was still occurring. It was eventually determined that it may have uses beyond the surface level ones. Now there are many medical conditions that Botox is considered effective in treating, like bladder control issues, but perhaps the most notable medical use of Botox is its treatment of chronic migraines. Migraines have long baffled the medical community as there is no one hard and fast rule for why they occur, and so sufferers are often bounced between medications in a series of trial and error before finding an effective one. This makes the use of Botox to treat chronic migraines particularly exciting for sufferers, as it simply treats the physical cause for Migraine pain (tensing of the muscles around nerve areas) rather than guessing at the reason Migraines are occurring.

Few products on the market today have undergone such a material transformation as Botox. What was once nothing but a harmful poison transformed into a point of interest for medical professionals, morphed into the world’s most widely used non-surgical cosmetic procedure, and is now enjoying another renaissance as a genuinely useful medical substance. It may not be a fit for everyone, but the continued popularity of Botox stems from one indisputable fact: it works.