Sure, lead may be found in our Earth's crust, but there's nothing natural about its toxicity to humans. Reproductive problems, hypertension, and nerve, muscle, memory and concentration disorders are some of the medical implications for adults who are exposed to too much lead. The risks for kids are even greater; their bodies absorb lead in higher concentrations and this absorption can damage their brains and nervous systems. This metal is found in old paint, old plumbing, in dirt and in lipstick.
Yes, lead is present in most lipsticks sold in the United States. Before you rush over to your makeup drawer and banish your lipsticks to the trash bin, though, let's investigate whether or not the lead levels in your lipsticks pose a danger.
A few years ago, there was a groundswell scare, and consumers began contacting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asking if the lead in their lipsticks should be a concern. The FDA responded by conducting a study in 2009 and another follow-up study in 2011. The 2009 research evaluated 20 lipsticks, and the 2011 report evaluated 400. All lipsticks in both studies contained lead.
The expanded survey found that the average lead concentration in the 400 lipsticks tested was 1.11 parts per million (ppm), which is a similar number to the results of the previous 2009 study. The results ranged from the lowest level of 0.026 ppm to the highest value of 7.19 ppm. The top five offenders included Maybelline "Color Sensational 125 Pink Petal" with 7.19, L'Oréal "Colour Rich 410 Volcanic" with 7.00, NARS "Semi-Matt 1005 Red Lizard" with 4.93, Cover Girl Queen Collection "Vibrant Hues Color Q580 Ruby Remix" with 4.92, and NARS Semi-Matte 1009 Funny Face" with 4.89. (For a full list, go to the FDA's Analyses of Lead in Lipsticks – Expanded Survey.)
The FDA contends that even the highest of levels are not a significant problem: "We have assessed the potential for harm to consumers from use of lipstick containing lead at the levels found in both rounds of testing. Lipstick, as a product intended for topical use with limited absorption, is ingested only in very small quantities. We do not consider the lead levels we found in the lipsticks to be a safety concern. The lead levels we found are within the limits recommended by other public health authorities for lead in cosmetics, including lipstick."
While the FDA calls lipstick lead levels safe, at least one organization calls foul. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics' Web site claims there are no safe levels of lead, quoting Mark Mitchell, M.D., policy advisor of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice and co-chair of the Environmental Health Task Force for the National Medical Association: "Lead builds up in the body over time and lead-containing lipstick applied several times a day, every day, can add up to significant exposure levels. The latest studies show there is no safe level of lead exposure."
So, what's a lady to do? You could trust the FDA and remain confident that your lipsticks are safe. Or, you could decide it's not worth the risk and stop using your favorites, opting for lead-free lipsticks instead.
Meanwhile, the FDA remains vigilant and claims it will continue to evaluate whether it should recommend an upper limit for lead in lipstick.