Is There Lead in Your Lipstick?

Photo (cc) by Photography-S!

If you’re buying or renting a home built before 1978 – the year lead-based paint was banned – the seller or landlord has to disclose whether the home contains lead. Federal laws require it.

But if you’re applying lipstick containing lead to your lips, there’s no law to protect you. In fact, chances are good that your favorite lipstick contains lead. A recent study by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that 400 lipsticks – both drugstore and department store brands – contain more lead than ever before.

Here’s the history in brief…

  • 2007: The nonprofit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics tests 33 brand-name lipsticks for lead. Although none of the lipsticks listed lead as an ingredient, 0.3 to 0.65 ppm (parts per million) of lead was detected in more than half of the lipsticks. (For more details, check out the CSC’s report A Poision Kiss: The Problem of Lead in Lipstick.)
  • 2009: After receiving letters from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics as well as U.S. senators, the FDA releases the results of its own study. When the agency tested 20 of the same lipsticks tested by the CSC, 0.9 to 3.06 ppm of lead was detected in all 20 lipsticks.
  • 2011: The FDA conducts a follow-up study – whose results show that 0.026 to 7.19 ppm of lead was detected in 400 different lipsticks. L’Oreal was the biggest offender.

What’s it all mean?

The FDA says you shouldn’t be alarmed by their results.”We do not consider the lead levels we found in the lipsticks to be a safety concern,” reads their Lipstick and Lead FAQ page. “The lead levels we found are within the limits recommended by other public health authorities for lead in cosmetics, including lipstick.”

But consider this…

  • Two footnotes at the end of the FAQ say that those “other public health authorities” the FDA mentioned are actually a 2008 letter from the California attorney general (who’s not a public health authority) and the Canadian health department’s Draft Guidelines on Heavy Metal Impurities in Cosmetics (which actually state that lead is “prohibited in cosmetics sold in Canada”).
  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control – an actual public health authority – says in its lead fact sheet that “no safe blood lead level has been identified.”
  • The FDA’s FAQ page also says they are “evaluating whether there may be a need to recommend an upper limit for lead in lipstick in order to further protect the health and welfare of consumers.” But if they really believe lead in lipstick isn’t a safety concern, why create a rule that caps the amount of lead in lipstick?
  • Remember that the FDA initially withheld the results of their first test from the public. They published them in the July/August 2009 issue of the Journal of Cosmetic Science, then available for a fee, but did not share the brands of lipstick tested or post the results to their website until November 2009, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. But if the results don’t reveal a safety concern, why deny them to the tax-paying public that funds the FDA?

You can read more of the FDA’s stance on lead in lipstick on their FAQ page.

What can you do?

“We can’t shop our way out of this problem,” says the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Lead tests “can’t be used as a guide for what to buy.”

In other words, buying a lipstick that didn’t test positive for lead in the CSC’s or FDA’s tests is no guarantee that it doesn’t contain lead either. Unless laws change, there’s no way to know if a given lipstick is safe to use. So in the meantime, there are really only two things you can do…

  • Cut back on lipstick use or give it up entirely. CSC suggests limiting it to special occasions, but if you’re pregnant, consider giving it up. Dr. Sean Palfrey is a professor of pediatrics and public health at Boston University and the medical director of Boston’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, and he told the CSC, “Lead is a proven neurotoxin that can cause learning, language and behavioral problems such as lowered IQ, reduced school performance and increased aggression. Pregnant women and young children are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure, because lead easily crosses the placenta and enters the fetal brain, where it can interfere with normal development.”
  • Join the fight. Just last week, the CSC wrote a second letter to the director of the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors. The Environmental Working Group, another nonprofit advocate group, signed it too. To make your own voice heard, consider writing to the manufacturer of your lipstick or to your senators. CSC has a form letter you can send to L’Oreal, and you can look up your senators’ names and contact info at Senate.gov.

To learn more about what’s in the cosmetics you use every day, check out How to Read Beauty Product Labels.

Karla Bowsher runs our Deals page and covers consumer, retail, and health issues. If you have a comment, suggestion, or question, leave a comment or contact her at [email protected].

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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