This post may contain "affiliate links." This means if you click on the affiliate link and purchase the item, I'll receive a commission. I disclose this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255. I only recommend products that passed my strict criteria. Read about my research methods in the Start Here page.
Ever since I read the FDA test results of 400 lipsticks back in 2010, heavy metal contamination in cosmetics has been my concern. In the FDA test, most lipsticks contained some amount of lead, and the highest amount was 7.19 parts per million (ppm). I want to share with you how to choose the safest cosmetics based on years of experience asking questions of cosmetics manufacturers.
Why did the FDA test for lead?
Lead may cause a number of health issues. It affects the neurological, reproductive, gastrointestinal, and endocrine systems in our bodies. According to the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, in children, a safe level of lead in blood has not been identified. In other words, any childhood exposure to lead is not safe. For example, prenatal exposure to lead may lead to antisocial behavior and schizophrenia (source). The EPA (the Environmental Protection Agency) has classified lead as bioaccumulative, which means that it accumulates in our bodies over time.
What are other heavy metals that can be found in cosmetic colorants?
These heavy metals include arsenic, lead, mercury, antimony, copper, chromium, zinc, barium, cadmium, selenium, cobalt, and nickel.
Routes of exposure to heavy metals
To keep things in perspective, I am more concerned about heavy metal contamination in lipstick and lip glosses and loose powders because we ingest and inhale small amounts of them. After reading lots of scientific studies, it appears that skin absorption for most heavy metals is as not as effective as inhalation and ingestion.
I think the main priority should be on eliminating ways to inhale and ingest cosmetics, which can happen if, for example, your baby touches your face and then sucks on her fingers. So it is important to understand the dangers by first examining your own lifestyle and how it may lead to the inhalation or ingestion of heavy metals by your or those with whom you come into close contact.
What makes it challenging to buy the safest cosmetics?
Heavy metals won’t be listed on the label. They are not ingredients, but possible contaminants and they are required to be listed or disclosed.
Both petroleum-based dyes and mineral pigments may contain trace amounts of heavy metals. So “natural” or even so-called “organic” mineral cosmetics are not necessarily the safest cosmetics.
On my blog, I recommend cosmetics made with mineral pigments only because while both mineral pigments and petroleum-based pigments may contain trace amounts of heavy metals as detailed in the FDA 21 CFR., petroleum dye may contain traces of contaminants specific to petroleum including carcinogenic and endocrine disrupting benzo[a]pyrene, and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons).
What if a cosmetic company says that their mineral pigments are compliant with US requirements?
In Title 21, the FDA sets forth specifications for three metals (only three!), which are arsenic, mercury, and lead, in various colorants approved for use in cosmetics.
For example, in §73.2250, requirements for heavy metals in iron oxides (the main colorants in mineral cosmetics) are specified as follows:
Arsenic (abbreviated as “As”), not more than 3 parts per million.
Lead (“Pb”), not more than 10 parts per million.
Mercury (“Hg”), not more than 3 parts per million.
Ultramarines, another mineral pigment, has the following specifications:
Lead (“Pb”), not more than 20 parts per million.
Arsenic (“As”), not more than 3 parts per million.
Mercury (“Hg”), not more than 1 part per million.
Keep in mind that these are heavy metals specifications for colorants, which means that we do not know how much of heavy metals end up in a cosmetic product if multiple colorants are used.
In December 2016, the FDA issued draft guidelines on lead (lead only!) in cosmetic products. The FDA specified 10 ppm as a maximum limit for lead in a product.
Based on this, we can conclude that the FDA regulations for heavy metals in cosmetic colorants and products are not sufficient.
Can we choose the safest cosmetics based on heavy metals tests performed by cosmetic companies?
In an ideal world, in order for a cosmetics manufacturer to be 100% sure whether the pigments or dyes they buy have the lowest traces of heavy metals as possible, they have to send them to an independent lab and do that for every heavy metal (there are 12 heavy metals found as contaminants), for every batch of every pigment, and for every batch of a final product they make. As you can imagine, this would be a labor-intensive and costly process.
In my experience, Beautycounter was the only one who claimed that they tested all of their hair color products during formulation, at the end of formulation, and before they ordered any new batch. They claimed and in the article posted on the internet that they tested for 12 heavy metals (source).
When I found out about that, I was very excited. In fact, I considered recommending their products, despite the fact that they use other ingredients that do not adhere to my standards because I really value transparency. However, after I had started asking questions about this process and the results of their tests, the article became unavailable. In the end, Beautycounter was unable to tell what their test results were, what limits they set for each heavy metal, or show me a sample of their test reports. You can read more about my long story of going back and forward with them here. As a result, I never recommended their products.
To my knowledge, there is only one company, Poofy Organics, that tested for 5 heavy metals and distributed their test report to their consultants. However, the test report raises more questions and I need more information from them and other cosmetics manufacturers to gauge the safety of Poofy Organics products.
So, as you can tell, we as consumers cannot make an informed choice as to the safest cosmetics based simply on heavy metals tests. We should continue asking for them though. I truly believe that consumers (and I have seen the evidence of that) have a lot of power.
What can we do today to choose the safest cosmetics?
At this point, I think it is important to make sure that the manufacturer’s mineral pigments are not made in China – especially the ones that are known to contain heavy metals contaminants, such as iron oxides and ultramarines. A lot of cosmetic colorants do come from China. I can’t vouch for colorants made in China because the background levels of environmental pollution are high and regulations are almost non-existent. Thus, even a mineral pigment that is made to exacting standards made in the US could be suspect, because it is so polluted in China.
By the way, a popular brand called Vapour Organic Beauty did not answer my repeated questions about what country their pigments are made in. (I always assume the worst when a company is not responding to me.)
Second, I recommend looking for pigments certified by EcoCert, which is an independent European agency. The Ecocert certification means the pigments are truly natural, without any synthetic additives. Also, EcoCert pigments have to adhere to European regulations that have heavy metals thresholds for 12 heavy metals, not just the 3 that are restricted by the FDA.
And lastly, we should keep asking for independent test results. I know that it is very costly for cosmetic companies to perform ongoing tests for numerous heavy metals for every batch of their products but maybe they can figure out how to put pressure on the cosmetic colorant suppliers to pay for those tests.
Thus, choosing the safest cosmetics is not the easiest task. My recommendation is to look for cosmetics made with EcoCert-certified pigments that are made in the US or Europe.
Please share with us any research you might have done into heavy metals in cosmetics so we as a community can grow more powerful. As more companies evolve their practices, and as consumer pressure to disclose this information increases, my recommendations are likely to evolve and change as well, so keep checking back. Better yet, subscribe to my blog and you’ll be notified each time I post new material.
Some related articles to read:
Cosmetics that I currently use
Let's start creating a healthy home today!
When you join the I Read Labels For You community, you'll receive weekly emails with inspiration, exclusive content and coupons to gain clarity and confidence to create a healthy home. Plus, you'll get the FREE guide: "5 Powerful Steps to a Non-Toxic Home You Can Take Today!"
"I find your knowledge so helpful, to the point and like a gold mine. You have saved me so much time and have taught me so much.” Toni