An Introduction to Chemicals in Lipstick

Learn About Lead in Lipstick and other Unhealthy Lipstick Toxicants

It turns out there is lead in lipstick, as two television reporters on opposite sides of North America reported in 2006. In July, Pittsburgh’s WPXI-TV tested five brands of lipstick and found lead in ever y one of them. In May, Los Angeles’ KCBS-TV tested 19 lip products and found lead in four of them, at levels that varied from 0.2 and 0.4 parts per million — that’s two to four times the FDA limit for lead in candy.

Is this trace level of lead cause for concern? It depends who you ask. For most healthy people, a little bit of lead in lipstick is “probably not a big deal, but there are people who need to be concerned about it and they are young women and pregnant women, for sure,” said Devra Lee Davis, PhD, director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. Lead builds up in the body, so small amounts applied to the lips several times daily, five days a week, could add up to a significant amount over a person’s lifetime. Pregnant and nursing women pass lead and other hazardous chemicals on to their developing babies. Numerous studies show there is no safe dose of lead in children’s blood. None of this should worry the millions of women who enjoy lipstick every day, according to the cosmetics industry.

It may be impossible to live in a lead-free world, but is it really impossible to keep lead out of lipstick? Aren’t these the same companies with the glossy ads promising products that can bring balance, health and vitality to our lives? Shouldn’t they be at the front of the line offering to reduce their contribution to the toxic load?

On the contrary, the world’s richest cosmetics companies take the position that small amounts of hazardous chemicals are safe to use in cosmetics. The cosmetics industry’s chief spokesperson, Dr. John Bailey, told the New York Times that the chemicals being singled out by environmental groups are present in such small amounts in personal care products that they pose no threat to human health. He compared them to salt in cooking. “A little salt on your peas or tomatoes can be good,” Dr. Bailey said. “But a lot of salt can have adverse health effects on your blood pressure, and too much can be fatal.

Unfortunately, mixtures of chemicals with various toxic proper ties become more complicated than salt. A little bit of hormone-disrupting chemicals mixed with carcinogenic contaminants in the baby shampoo, the bubble bath and the body wash add up — day in and day out. The cosmetics companies insist their products are safe, but what do those claims really mean? They typically mean the product has been tested to ensure it doesn’t cause short-term obvious health effects, such as rashes, swelling and eye irritation. Most chemicals in cosmetics have not been tested for their potential to cause long-term health problems such as cancer or reproductive harm. Contrary to the letter from Revlon’s Rachel Evans, the US FDA has little authority to ensure the safety of cosmetics or to remove unsafe products from the market. The way the system works in the US is that the cosmetics companies get to decide for them- selves what’s safe.

The cosmetics industry contributes more than just a little bit to the chemical problem. Hundreds of tons of chemical-containing beauty products are sold every day — and applied to people’s bodies. According to a 1997 survey by the California Air Resources Board, more than 220 tons of personal care products were sold daily in the state, including 52 tons of hair spray, 24 tons of styling gels, 12 tons of fragrance and more  — enough products to fill two tanker trucks per day with cosmetic chemical compounds, in just one state.


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