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Is There Lead in Your Lipstick?

by Brian Dunning, May 31 2012

In February of this year, there was another round of media sensationalism when it was reported that a number of popular brands of lipstick contain potentially dangerous levels of lead. This is not a new claim; it has popped up a number of times, including during the 1990s and again in 2007.

It is, of course, true that many lipsticks do contain lead. It’s an effective component of some color additives, and is used at levels that are well below safety margins. Most mainstream media reported this accurately, such as this article from the Washington Post, but gave a voice to self-described watchdog groups such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics who put out this report claiming that there is “no safe level of lead exposure” and mischaracterizing the lead content in lipstick as “contamination”. Some alternative media and chain emails even got the science more wrong than that, stating that the lead is a cancer risk. (The practical danger from lead poisoning is as a neurotoxin, not a carcinogen.) Snopes effectively debunked those reports.

There is probably no need to repeat it here, but there is a safe level of every substance, including lead. Poisons are defined only by their dose. The FDA, which regulates lead levels in color additives, thoroughly stated the facts and explained the levels. The highest level found was about 7 ppm, and the average is about 1 ppm. Although the FDA doesn’t regulate lipstick itself, they do regulate the color additives; and their maximum safe level is 20 ppm. So there’s little room for rational debate; all known lipsticks contain lead levels that are far below safety margins.

But my point in writing this post is not to lay out these facts, as they’re widely available to anyone who’s serious about learning the real science. My point is to question whether mainstream media, such as the Washington Post, missed an opportunity to inject a little scientific skepticism into the public zeitgeist. True, they’re a media outlet, which survives on eyeball share and the type of reputation gained by “fairly” reporting “both sides” of a story. So, while at first glance we may dismiss a news agency’s likelihood to be skeptical as unrealistic, we can at the same time argue that it should be everyone’s obligation, all the time, to improve and not erode the public’s ability to separate fact from fiction.

While I don’t have any specific complaints about this particular Washington Post article — given their need to be “fair and balanced” — I can suggest a way that all such news articles could be easily improved. It was undoubtedly clear to the reporter that the charges of the lead being dangerous were fringe claims that have practically zero support among knowledgeable experts; there is no way the reporter could have spoken to multiple sources and not learned this glaring fact. Nevertheless it was her duty to report “both sides”, and I believe we have to realistically accept that that’s how it’s going to continue to be. But think what a useful effect a paragraph like this would have added:

While true lead poisoning can indeed be dangerous, lead — like all compounds — is also found in safe levels throughout our natural environment. The view expressed by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics does not appear to align with any known observations or sound theory.

It’s simple, it’s true, and it would have been trivial to support with a quotation from virtually anyone that a reporter is likely to talk to. Most significantly, it would have truly enlightened the readers who come to the news media to learn what’s actually going on in the world. False balance, while expedient, is harmful by itself; but when offered with a touch of skepticism, can fulfill both the media’s needs and the natural obligation to do good works.

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36 Responses to “Is There Lead in Your Lipstick?”

  1. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    “Now that Doctor Smith-Jones, senior researcher in orbital mechanics at NASA, has explained how NASA decides the shapes of satellite orbits, we have invited a speaker to give the other side of the argument. Here is Mr. Robinson, a janitor from Otterbutt, Wisconsin, to present the position of the Flat Earth Society.”

    • Janet Camp says:

      That’s hilarious, Dave–even (or maybe especially) for a (transplanted) Wisconsinite.

      While I’m not familiar with Otterbutt, I am pretty sure the soon-to-be (hope, hope) ex-Governor, Scott Walker (or Snot Walker, as we call him) is from there!

  2. Jen says:

    My only question about this is whether exposure to lead is cumulative. Women who wear lipstick don’t just apply it once, but often many times a day, and for some (depending on how self-conscious they are) as much as every hour. So if the dose makes the poison, is that dose building across the day or days? How long does lead stay in the system?

    • Lisa M. Rodgers says:

      Jen -

      Any ingredient that is from the soil, meaning, if it grew, would contain trace amounts of lead. Lead is not knowingly added to lipstick; however, trace amounts of lead may appear if it contains ingredients from the soil. “You would have to consume 3 to 4 tubes of lipstick per day for 70 years to reach toxic lead exposure”. ~ Dr. Richard Adamson, a former cancer researcher.

      For more truthful information about lead in lipstick, take a look at a site I co-founded – Personal Care Truth http://personalcaretruth.com/tag/lead-in-lipstick/

      Have a great day!

      Lisa

      • Julie says:

        Lisa! So glad to see you found this article and commented! I have been a frequent reader and commenter on PCT, which is one of the BEST sites out there for the truth behind the science in personal care and cosmetics. (I, until just recently, was working in this industry as well, as a microbiologist and director of Quality & Regulatory Affairs for many years)

        As you’ve already made this point, maybe I don’t need to say it again, but since it wasn’t clear in the original blog post, I just can’t help myself: Lead is not ADDED to lipstick or any other cosmetic or personal care product. It is a naturally-occurring component of many natural ingredients, including the minerals that are used to color lipstick. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (and it’s sister, the Environmental Working Group) are rarely to be trusted with their so-called “scientific research.”

  3. JohnH says:

    Jen,

    Those may be fair questions, but seem disingenous. Do you imagine that you are the first to think of those questions? The toxicologists who work on these levels are well aware of the issues you raise, and they are considered in the setting of the acceptable doses.

    • Max says:

      They have a weird way of setting it.
      http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/cps-spc/legislation/consultation/_cosmet/metal-metaux-consult-eng.php
      “There are currently no international standards for impurities in cosmetics. Limits have been established in Germany. Rather than taking a risk-based approach, the German limits are based on levels that could be technically avoided. Thus, heavy metal impurities were limited to anything above normal background levels… Based on their studies, it was determined that heavy metal levels in cosmetic products above the values listed below are considered technically avoidable.”

      So they’re saying that levels below their thresholds are technically unavoidable. But one can avoid lead in lipstick by finding lipstick with less lead or by using less lipstick. We’re talking about lipstick here, not serious stuff like vaccines and toothpaste.

  4. Max says:

    The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics quotes the CDC.
    http://safecosmetics.org/article.php?id=223
    “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states: ‘No safe blood lead level has been identified.’ The agency suggests avoiding all sources of lead exposure, including lead-containing cosmetics.”

    That’s true.
    http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/tips.htm
    “To further reduce a child’s exposure from non-residential paint sources: avoid using traditional home remedies and cosmetics that may contain lead”

  5. MAx,

    Those statements are misleading. First they apply to children, not adults. In children there is evidence for reduced IQ even with low blood lead levels BLL, so the CDC wants to minimize all exposure.

    They say: “Approximately 250,000 U.S. children aged 1-5 years have blood lead levels greater than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, the level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated.”

    They changed the language recently – they no longer say that levels below 10 mcg are completely safe, but they still consider it a useful cutoff for action. Also, not having definitive evidence for where the cutoff is for safe BLL is not the same thing as there being no safe level.

    Regarding avoiding cosmetics containing lead – that is not a recommendation that women do not use lead containing cosmetics, but that such cosmetics are not kept around children who might eat them.

  6. Jen says:

    JohnH, I am sorry that you think I am being disingenuous, and no, I don’t think I am the first to ever think of those questions. I really just have no idea how lead is processed by the body and was hoping someone else might. I will google it myself when I get home, but was unable to do so at work. I am also aware that the way some women compulsively apply make-up may be outside of the dose people are reasonably expected to take in. I am not under the impression that I know more than the FDA, I just don’t know the chemistry involved in lead digestion, nor was I sure whether the quantity stated as safe in the article was specifically for cosmetics or for a single safe dose of lead in general. I was hoping to learn something, not one-up the medical establishment.

    • Steven says:

      Your body is perfectly capable of digesting lead, and again, the problem is only when you ingest too much at a time. Consider how you actually use lipstick: You may apply it constantly, but you’re not actually eating it, or putting it directly into your bloodstream. Think of how long it takes to go through a single stick. The danger of lead poisoning only arises if you were to, say, eat several sticks every day for a while, which nobody would argue is an appropriate way to use lipstick or any kind of cosmetic. The amount of lead you may ingest from applying lipstick throughout the day generally passes through the body before it has the chance to build up. You hear about things like the toy recall because the amount of lead considered “safe” for children is far, far lower than it is for adults.

  7. Richard Smith says:

    It goes without saying* that the “lipstick” pictured at the top of the article contains even less lead…

    *Well, it _would_ go without if I hand’t just gone and said it.

  8. Peter Damian says:

    What about second hand exposure ?

  9. BillG says:

    When you address safe levels of all substances or “poisons are defined only by their dose”, my concern compares smoking bans to other indoor public toxins.

    Besides buildings, we have some cities/states enacting bans that include public places in which (auto)carbon monoxide exceeds a couple puffing on butt. Generally I applaud most of these bans, however non-soy based candles, cleaning supplies and fireplaces can all create unsafe levels equal to 2nd hand smoke that can have effects on lung function. Personlly I would love to see perfume/colonge free zones – harmless they may be, but headaches and upset stomach I could do without.

  10. d brown says:

    Lead and IQ. Some years ago I read that the difference in IQ made by lead is about the difference between the first born and the second. I don’t know if that was BS or not. But it was said to make grown ups nuts. A lot of FDA rules a over the top.

  11. Max says:

    If a journalist or a blogger writes, “The view expressed by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics does not appear to align with any known observations or sound theory,” are readers just supposed to take his word for it? How does he know that? Is it his gut feeling? Did he read it in cosmetics industry-sponsored CosmeticsInfo.org? In Wikipedia? In an FDA report? Cite the source.

    • As you can see, that’s what I went on to say in the next paragraph.

      • Max says:

        I’ve heard skeptics complain about giving interviews where the interviewer was just hunting for a sound bite to support his predetermined conclusion. It’s even more obvious in articles that represent public opinion with a few cherry picked tweets or quotes from the man on the street that happen to agree with the author’s opinion.

  12. Peter Damian says:

    Lead and IQ may only be correlative as those with poorer school performance are more likely to have to work in fields with exposure risk and poorer children with sub par nutrition are more likely to live in areas with exposure than their wealthier 1% counterparts.

  13. Crabe says:

    Just wondering if the promoters of this new campaign have a fully-safe-life…

    I guess none of them smoke, no need to say it is far more hazardous!

  14. Phil says:

    You can find trace levels of almost anything in any substance if you look hard enough. But point taken, adding lead to lipstick does seem counter intuitive. Have there ever been studies done to see if there is any difference in appearance between added lead and “no” lead? Perhaps lead is added just because that’s the way they do it and no one has thought to stop. I’ve often wondered about lead in crystal cups. Is it a byproduct of manufacture or added deliberately?

    • Max says:

      Lead is added to glass to increase the index of refraction so it sparkles more.
      Lead was deliberately added to paint for practical reasons, but I don’t know if it’s deliberately added to lipstick.

    • Julie says:

      As I just commented above, lead is NEVER ADDED to lipstick. Lead is a naturally-occurring component of many of the minerals that are used to color lipstick and other cosmetics.

  15. fortheloveofgandhi says:

    The issue here is that the FDA allows smaller amounts of lead to be ingested than used topically. As lipstick is unintentionally ingested almost every time it is worn, it’s worth asking if lipstick ingredients should be held to the stricter standard and used in smaller amounts. Candy is only allowed .1 PPM of lead, whereas lipstick ingredients are allowed 20 PPM, so you would have to ingest a lot of candy to get the same dose you’d get from a smear of lipstick. Additionally, the lipstick “scare” calls in to question whether the FDA should regulate cosmetics. Many other countries regulate cosmetics as well as food and pharmaceuticals. What we put on our bodies can harm us. There are a lot of products out there and we have no proof of either safety or efficacy.

    • Julie says:

      The reason the FDA does not currently regulate cosmetics is because the amount of harm done (as measured by complaints and injuries caused by cosmetics) is almost zero. It’s a waste of resources for them to regulate an industry in which almost no one is ever harmed. It is different in the EU (and California), because they work on the Precautionary Principle, which is not scientifically sound. The number of “injuries” (adverse health events) from food and pharmaceuticals are huge amounts greater than cosmetics.

      • Max says:

        Do you assume that drugs and dietary supplements are safe until proven otherwise, or vice-versa?

    • Max says:

      http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductandIngredientSafety/SelectedCosmeticIngredients/ucm127406.htm

      “With the important exception of color additives that are not coal-tar hair dyes, cosmetic ingredients are not subject to FDA premarket approval authority. However, regulations prohibit the use of some substances and restrict the use of others because of safety concerns or environmental factors. Violating the restrictions on the use of these substances may cause FDA to pursue regulatory action.”

      It doesn’t say whether cosmetics labels are required to disclose allergens such as peanuts the way food labels do.

  16. Derek says:

    Julie says, “As I just commented above, lead is NEVER ADDED to lipstick.” This is an interesting made-up (non) fact. It is impossible to know everything that is in lipstick, because manufacturers are not required to disclose all of their ingredients. In addition, cases regularly appear, in which dangerous ingredients are verified in products that are not supposed to contain them. It’s disappointing that the supposed champions of truth and science are so ready to make unsupported assertions and unverifiable claims, while ridiculing those who are skeptical. Perhaps it is true that lead is not a currently approved ingredient of lipstick manufactured in the United States, but there is a gulf between that and Julie’s statement.

    The official safe limits for many chemicals, set by the EPA, FDA, CDC, and other government and scientific bodies, have been revised downwards multiple times during the last fifty years. Contrary to one of Brian’s statements, it is entirely rational to debate whether the current values are accurate. It is not rational to assume that the standards are right, nor that they are substantially wrong. “Because the government says so” is a very weak reason to do or believe anything. Investigating the establishment of “safe” limits on specific chemicals reveals a wide range of credibility and varying weight given to science. In some cases, the standards are well-researched. In the case of the FDA, the research behind many standards is very weak.

    Here is another outlandish statement made by a supposed supporter of science: “It’s a waste of resources for them to regulate an industry in which almost no one is ever harmed.” Establishing whether harm has been caused by an industry is extremely difficult. Verifying the magnitude of harm for an industry, much less the exact cause and effect for the low-level toxins that it introduces into humans, has seldom, if ever, been accomplished. It is dishonest to assert that we have enough reliable information to state that “almost no one is ever harmed” by the cosmetics industry.

    What we don’t know is huge. What we do know is small, but important. The limits of our knowledge should not be dismissed, nor exaggerated. It is quite valid to say that the evidence points to lead in lipstick not being a big problem. It is silly to go off the deep end on every possible issue, and to try and scare people via poorly researched sensationalism. At the same time, and for the same reason, it is silly to be too sure that our current understanding won’t be revised significantly. I’m opposed the the cranks who want to exaggerate everything, and claim as “knowledge” that which is only belief, hope, and speculation. That includes the cranks who are sure there is a problem, as well as those who accept too readily the current assertions of a politicized, underfunded government authority as definitive.

    • Julie says:

      Well, in my experience working in the cosmetics/personal care and pharmaceutical industries for many years, I have never come across any company who uses lead as an ingredient in any cosmetic product, including lipstick. It’s not something that happens, according to all the studies and adverse effects reports I’ve ever come across, not to mention regulations and the actual practices of cosmetic manufacturers. And while it is true that cosmetic labeling is not strictly regulated, there are rules and guidances that state that all ingredients must be listed on cosmetics. Yes, many companies ignore these guidances, but that doesn’t mean they’re including illegal substances in the products.

      My comment about not “adding” lead is because most of the people who make a stink about lead in lipstick imply that cosmetics manufacturers are adding lead as an ingredient in and of itself, which is false. There is lead in the minerals that are used to color lipstick, just as there may be lead in anything that contains naturally-occurring minerals or plants. But lead is not an intentionally-added individual ingredient. In no way is this an unsupported assertion or unverifiable claim, and I didn’t “make it up.” All the properly performed studies that show the levels of lead in lipstick support this.

      In general, I’m not a fan of the FDA, but my observations and comments are based on the reports of scientists outside of the FDA, for the most part (often outside of the US as well). I have been involved in international regulations for many years, so I’m familiar with all sides of these arguments. So, I’m not blindly accepting any assertions that the FDA makes. Oftentimes, the FDA bows to public pressure that may or may not be justified scientifically. This is true in Europe as well, which follows the Precautionary Principle, of which you are apparently a fan. The Precautionary Principle is not scientifically sound, and leads to excessive regulation (not to mention mountains of paperwork) that does nothing to improve the safety or quality of the products. For most cosmetics, the only difference in what is sold in the US and what is sold in the EU is that the products sold in the EU cost approximately $10,000 more (per product) to market. Same product, higher cost, no change in safety or quality.

      • Max says:

        I don’t find it reassuring when people involved in regulations rail against the precautionary principle.
        If you don’t know whether a substance is safe or not, do you treat it as if it’s safe? If I give you a random mushroom, would you eat it?

      • Max says:

        “For most cosmetics, the only difference in what is sold in the US and what is sold in the EU is that the products sold in the EU cost approximately $10,000 more (per product) to market.”

        How do you know they’re no different if they’re not regulated? Are they no different because the same company makes them to comply with the stricter EU regulations?
        What does “most cosmetics” mean? How many Americans use cosmetics banned outside the US?
        I’m guessing you saw this:
        http://www.ewg.org/unsafecosmetics
        “More than 750 personal care products sold in the U.S. violate industry safety standards or cosmetic safety standards in other industrialized countries.”

        Or how about this?
        http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/story/2011/03/18/f-marketplace-erica-johnson-green.html

        “When we talked to the Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, an industry lobby group, president Darren Praznik told us this again and again: If you’re concerned, read the label. And if you — like most of us — can’t understand it, you should ask the companies for clarification.
        But no accountability also means that there’s no incentive for companies to be transparent. When we called to ask companies to back up their overt natural claims and reveal how much of their product is natural or organic, they told us that information was deemed proprietary.”

      • Mud says:

        Seeing this has twisted to regulation and the loopy end of products, Natural or Organic can easily be scrapped for a better regulation (fair for customers) and control for consumers.

        I still haven’t seen any that is un-natural or supernatural in my lifetime. Given the acceptance that technological carbon cannot be used in “organic” produce (at least by Oz standards); nothing is “organic”.

      • Max says:

        What is technological carbon?