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Lead in Lipstick


lead lipstick heavy metals cosmetics

Back in 2013 lead in lipstick had been in the news for a couple months.  It seems like everybody is talking about it – Forbes, CBS, Washington Post, USA Today, TIME, Healthland, Urban Legends, and Chronicle.  My readers have been forwarding me articles (and I thank them for that).


The short version of what has happened is that in December 2011, the FDA quietly posted on its website the results of lead testing of 400 lipsticks.  The original lead test was done in 2007 under pressure from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of several consumer advocacy organizations, such as the Environmental Working Group and the Womens’ Voices for the Earth.


Although the results of the 2011 test showed Maybelline and L’Oreal lipsticks had lead levels at 7.19 PPM (parts per million) and 7.0 consequently, higher than the 5-parts-per-million recommended by the state of California, the FDA concluded that the amount of lead in lipstick does not pose any health risk.  At this time, the FDA is evaluating whether there is a need to recommend an upper limit for lead in lipstick.  To see the full list of 400 tested lipstick, click here.


How Bad Is Lead? 


  • The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has given lead a rating of 10 out 10 (10 being the worst).


  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer (World Health Organization) has classified lead as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”


  • The US National Toxicology Program has classified it as something that is “reasonably to be anticipated to be [a] carcinogen[].”


  • The state of California has it on the list of “Chemicals Known to the State to Cause Cancer.”


  • Lead is recognized as a reproductive toxin – has been linked with infertility.


  • It is a developmental toxin – it can cross the placenta and damage the fetal brain.


  • Lead is a proven neurotoxin that can cause learning, language, and behavioral problems.


  • Lead is bioaccumulative (it builds up in our bodies) and persistent in wildlife (it does not break down easily in the environment).


What are the amounts of lead found in lipstick? 


The FDA claims that the amount of lead in lipstick is so small that there is nothing to worry about.  Besides, the FDA reminds us that lipstick is of topical use and not intended for ingestion. To put 7.19 parts per million in context, the FDA’s recommended upper limit of lead in candies is 0.1 parts per million.  I agree that candy is eaten in bigger amounts than lipstick.  However, I believe it should be taken into account that women wear lipstick every day of their lives, and they ingest it while eating or drinking.  In addition, young children (who are at the most risk of lead poisoning) may get a hold of it and eat it.  Parents who are unaware of lead problems may allow young children to wear lipstick.  Newborn babies are kissed with lipstick.  And pregnant women wear lipstick, too. And remember that lead is bioaccumulative, which means it builds up in our bodies.  It would be good to require manufacturers to write a simple warning message on the product: “May contain lead. Keep away from babies and children.”


Let’s assume just for a minute that the FDA is right and the level of lead is safe, then why has the state of California recommended the upper limit of 5 parts per million?  Just for fun?  Why does the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics state that there are no safe levels of lead?  Do they spend their donated money to stir rumors and cause panic just for the sake of it?  I doubt it.


A Bigger Problem Than Lead in Lipstick 


The way I see it, the problem is not only lead in lipstick.  It just happened that lead caught the publicity.  There are other heavy metal contaminants that might be present in lipstick. For example, researchers at UC Berkeley School of Public Health published their study of 32 lipsticks this year, in which 9 harmful metals were found such as cadmium, chromium, aluminum, and manganese.  Further, contaminants, such as arsenic, zinc, aluminum, mercury, and others may be found not only in lipstick, but also in lip gloss, mascara, powder, foundation, and even toothpaste.   Both conventional (made from petroleum or coal) and natural (mineral) makeup is susceptible to metal contamination.


Even if we forget for a minute about possible contaminants, most lipsticks contain a number of potentially toxic ingredients.  Lipstick is like sausage – after you see how it is made, you will never want to use it.  Most color additives contained in lipstick are derived from petroleum; some are still made from coal tar.  Because both petroleum and coal tar are highly toxic, the FDA tests and certifies color additives derived from them.  However, as an example, the FDA allows up to 20 parts-per-million lead in color additives, and as we already know does not care how much lead will end up in a tube of lipstick.


An average lipstick contains 20-40 ingredients.  Manufacturers take advantage of the fact that a lipstick tube is too small to write on and do not list lipstick ingredients on it.  Furthermore, I often do not see lipstick ingredients on retail websites. As an example, I could not find lipstick ingredients on the Maybelline site.  Take a look and let me know if you find it.  I do not know how manufacturers get away with not listing ingredients because they are required to disclose ingredients on the labels of cosmetic products.  As a result, most women (I was one of them) never gave a thought about what might be in their lipsticks.


Besides the lack of regulation and the usage of potentially toxic ingredients, another issue with the safety of cosmetics is that safety is very difficult to enforce.  Let’s imagine that the FDA will eventually set a recommended upper limit for lead in lipstick.  Notice that it is only recommended, which means it is not enforceable. With the exceptions of color additives (except for coal tar hair dyes) made from petroleum and coal tar, the cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA premarket approval authority.  The FDA says that a manufacturer can use any ingredient (except for a few prohibited ones) in a formulation of a cosmetic product as long it is safe. But who determines what is “safe”?  The cosmetic manufacturers are responsible for the safety of their products. The FDA has no authority to require companies to test cosmetic products for safety.


Furthermore, the cosmetic industry has not been doing a good job policing itself. In its more than 30-year history, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, the industry review panel, has assessed fewer than 20 percent of cosmetics ingredients and found only 11 ingredients or chemical groups to be unsafe.  Its recommendations are not binding on companies.  For comparison, the European Union bans over 1,328 chemicals from use in cosmetics.  Anyway, these are the challenges US consumers are facing that are bigger than just lead in lipstick.


What Can You Do About Lead in Lipstick? 


  • Be aware of the fact that heavy metals can be found in lipstick and lip gloss.


  • Look at the 400 lipstick list and try to buy lipstick that contains a low level of lead (this might be difficult because each shade will have a different lead content).


  • Wear lipstick for special occasions, and the rest of the time use certified organic lip balm.


  • Before eating or drinking wipe lipstick off.


  • Keep lipstick out of children’s reach.


  • If pregnant or lactating, avoid wearing makeup (I know it might be hard but believe me you will be glowing with natural beauty).


  • Educate your daughters about dangerous chemicals in lipstick (back home in Eastern Europe we also did not have ingredients listed but it was common knowledge that makeup is toxic).


  • Ask cosmetics manufacturers about how they minimize heavy metals in their products.  Let us know in the comments that you do not want heavy metals in cosmetics so I can show your comments to cosmetics manufacturers.  Cosmetics manufacturers need to test for heavy metals and show us their testing reports.

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6 thoughts on “Lead in Lipstick”

    1. Hi, Mary: there are some lipstick brands I like, heavy metal issue aside. Did you read my today’s post on mascaras? How do you feel about heavy metal test reports disclosure? ~Irina

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