Lead in lipsticks: How to protect yourself

It’s a disquieting rumour most makeup fanatics have long chosen to ignore. I’m talking about the dirty “open” secret that some lipsticks contain lead.

I asked several of my girlfriends if they were aware of the dangers lurking in their lip products, and responses to my informal poll ranged from a brazenly blasé “So what?” to “Lead’s also in pencils, so it can’t be that bad.”

(For the record, the “lead” in our writing instruments is a misnomer – the core of wooden pencils is actually made of a graphite-clay composite.)

Lead itself is a proven poison that messes with our brains and bodies, causing learning disabilities, seizures, infertility and yes, death – all reasons why the metal has been banned in everything from paint to gasoline … except cosmetics.

The fact that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not taken the initiative to ban lead from our beauty products is shocking – doubly so given a recent study highlighted in a New York Times article, which reported that there are as many as eight other malignant metals in our lipsticks.

Here’s what we know so far. In 2011, the FDA found traces of lead in 400 lipsticks ranging from 0.026 parts per million (ppm) to 7.19ppm – averaging out at levels far exceeding the 0.1ppm recommended limit for lead in candy.

Lead may not be the only cosmetic contaminant. The latest study, published in the May edition of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, discovered lead and trace amounts of other metals like cadmium, chromium and aluminium in at least 24 lip glosses and eight lipsticks.

You may wonder, justifiably so, why there is lead in lipstick in the first place. Makeup manufacturers aren’t being deliberately malicious – lead is often introduced in the form of mineral-based colour additives.

The lacquer-like sheen in your gloss, for instance, is often the result of blending micro-flakes of mica into the formula. Mica is a highly reflective mineral that has the unfortunate carryover of containing metals like lead and manganese.

While the FDA insists that the average levels of lead in lipsticks do not warrant concern, the Environmental Health Perspectives study found that young women applied lip products as often as 24 times a day.

Think of the number of times you reapply your lipstick – touch-ups are required precisely because some of your lip product is inevitably swallowed. Add to that the fact that lead accumulates in our bodies over time, and we have a situation where lead exposure for makeup users could become a chronic condition.


Lead in lipsticks: How to protect yourself

This grim report doesn’t paint a pretty picture, but there’s no need to get our panties in a bunch. Here’s what we can do so that the balm on our lips doesn’t become a bane to our health:

1. First, go to the FDA’s website and browse through their comprehensive list to check if your go-to brand of lipstick contains lead.

2. If you’re considering switching to a safer brand, the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database is a great source of information, with product ratings based on levels of toxicity. The non-profit advocacy group Campaign for Safe Cosmetics also has a useful collation of safer alternatives which they’ve found to be lead-free.

3. Sometimes switching brands may not be feasible, especially if you’re a die-hard fan of a particular product. If you must use a certain lipstick or gloss, we recommend applying them only when you need to, such as right before a date or dinner party. During the rest of the day, cycle between that product and a non-toxic “standby” – some of the brands we like include RMS Beauty, Korres and Hemp Organics.

4. If you’re pregnant and want to be extra-safe, consider making your own lip colour. Here’s an easy recipe we like for tinted balm. By sitting a glass jar in a pan of gently simmering water, melt two tablespoons each of coconut oil and beeswax, together with the contents of a Vitamin E gel capsule. Stir in a pinch of beet root powder for a subtle rose hue, then transfer to small containers and cool to solidify. Talk about natural berry-stained lips!

For the New York Times story, go to http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/16/is-there-danger-lurking-in-your-lipstick.

For more information on lead-free lipsticks, visit the FDA at www.fda.gov, the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database at www.ewg.org/skindeep and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics at safecosmetics.org.