Overview of safety, regulatory and scientific issues related to reports of lead in lipstick.
Every day millions of women apply lipstick without a second thought. What many don’t know is that lipsticks may contain lead, the notorious metal that can cause learning, language and behavioral problems. Lead is a neurotoxin and can be dangerous even at small doses.
So what’s lead doing in lipsticks?
Those of you following the news may have seen that media articles breathed new life into the lead in lipstick controversy, an issue that have been debunked in the past. The media articles reference the 2011 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) study that ranks the lead content of 400 types and shades of lipsticks from dozens of cosmetic companies. Of course, what’s hidden in these news stories is that the FDA’s report concluded there never has been and there is still no risk in using any lipstick from any company. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (an Environmental Working Group spin-off) has twisted the facts of this study to create fear where there is no justification to do so, at least not any more so than the food you eat or the water you drink and yes, the air you breathe, especially if you live in a metropolitan area.
So, Let’s put aside panic, and take a closer look at the facts!
Is Lead Added To Your Lipstick?
Lead is not added to any cosmetic or anything intended for human consumption or use. The detectable level of lead in makeup originates from the pigments used to create a lipstick’s color. Nearly all cosmetic pigments are derived from naturally occurring minerals—right out of the Earth. All natural minerals (from aluminum to zinc oxide) contain trace levels of natural elements like lead, but cosmetic-grade minerals used in makeup or skin-care products are processed to “clean” the levels of such metals to a level below any potential harm.
Lead is present in parts-per-million in nearly anything and everything—from oxygen to daffodils, water, and almost every bit of matter on Earth. So it is not surprising then that it would also be present in naturally derived ingredients, including pigments. Parts-per-million (PPM) are incredibly minute amounts; to give this the proper context it’s the equivalent of one single grain of sugar in 5 pounds of flour.
According to the FDA’s report, the average amount of lead in lipstick is 1.11 PPM. If we conservatively estimated the average tube of lipstick at 1.5 grams, there would be approximately 300 tubes of lipstick in one pound. At the parts-per-million ratio, this amount of lead becomes meaningless.
We would need to eat thousands of tubes of lipsticks over the course of our lifetime to accumulate enough lead to pose even a slight risk—and women don’t eat lipstick. Yes, you ingest a tiny amount but most of the lipstick you lose comes off on other objects.
Unfortunately, news reports leave out this information, because scare tactics make better headlines and get more attention. It’s not nearly as enticing for a headline to read “Lead Found in Lipstick, But So What?”
Does the FDA Regulate Lead in Cosmetics?
The claim that the FDA isn’t regulating lead in cosmetic is false and a distortion of the facts. It is true that the finalized lipstick which you purchase from the drugstore or cosmetics counter isn’t required to be tested for levels of lead—but this is only because the individual ingredients used have already been tested extensively for safety, which also covers the color pigments used in cosmetics. This absolutely includes testing for substances like lead and other heavy metal impurities.
Testing considers all methods of use of a cosmetic, from a lifetime of applying Revlon’s Cherries in the Snow ten times or more a day to any potential irritation. Not only does the FDA allow only certified color pigments, but it requires that each batch of a pigment be tested again every time it is produced by the manufacturer—to say the FDAs testing process is exhaustive is an understatement.
The International Community Weighs In
You may have read that European Union or Canada (or any other country) “isn’t adding lead to their lipstick.” Just to be clear, no one adds lead to any cosmetic product. But fair enough, what does the EU and Canada think of the lead in lipstick controversy?
Just like the U.S., both Canada and the EU have limits and testing/registration processes in place for coloring agents and cosmetic pigments. In 2011, the European Commission’s Institute for Health and Consumer Protection conducted their own test of detectable lead levels in lipstickssold in the European market. They found no difference from those tested in the U.S., Australian or Japan—and the EU agreed that the levels of lead found in lipsticks posed no health risk.
Health Canada (their FDA) also agrees that the low amounts of lead in lipstick and other cosmetics poses no threat, and is an unavoidable presence in pigments.
It is worth noting that the levels of lead detected by the FDA in lipstick are lower than the safety standards set by regulatory groups in the EU and Canada. Both the EU and Canada (as noted in the links above) set their limits of lead in cosmetics at 10 parts-per-million, far above the average of 1.11 PPM found by the FDA. In other words, the lead in lipstick story wouldn’t be considered a newsworthy story if we’re going by the levels set by the EU and Canada.
The Campaign for Junk Science
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ news blitz on lead in lipsticks does not provide a single reference showing the incredibly tiny levels of lead in lipsticks is a problem. All of their sources have to do with occupational and/or environmental exposure to heavy metals (lead included), not cosmetics usage. Without question, lead can be a harmful substance in large amounts when ingested; however, there is simply no proof that the fractional amount that may be in some lipsticks is causing anyone harm in any way.
Actually, quantifying this would be difficult given the amount of lead we’re exposed to on a daily basis. According to the Cosmetics, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CTFA), “The average amount of lead a woman would be exposed to when using cosmetics is 1,000 times less than the amount she would get from eating, breathing and drinking water that meets Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drinking water standards,” The European Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (COLIPA) concur with CTFA’s comment. One wonders why the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics doesn’t splinter into a group urging people not to drink water, eat, or even take a deep breath lest they be bombarded with lead!
If you’re concerned about lead exposure, you’d be much better off having your home’s paint, soil, and water supply tested than opening your makeup bag in fear that adding color to lips will hurt you in some way. Also, once the information about lead in lipstick is proper context, you can see that all lipstick contains some level of lead—yes, even brands that claim to be “lead-free” are just unaware of the source of color pigments or minerals in makeup or skin care. It is impossible to completely remove all traces of lead from a lipstick, but the trace amounts that remain (and, as mentioned, occur naturally) are not harmful.
The next time you see a headline or a news story that seems to disparage otherwise benign products, think twice before becoming too concerned—and notice how often these reports are one-sided and geared toward causing a panic rather than helping you make an informed decision.
After reading this, I hope you’re not afraid of your lipstick. There are far more real things to worry about in cosmetics, like allergens or ingredients that will do harm to your skin, such as alcohol.