Lead in Cosmetics? Don’t Be Misled

April 11, 2012

Woman examining the cosmetics label

You might have gotten the email. It warns women that their favorite brand of lipstick could contain dangerous levels of lead. The email tells readers to put a streak of lipstick onto the back of one hand, and then take a piece of 14-karat-gold jewelry, like a ring, and rub it over the lipstick. If the ring makes the lipstick change color, the lipstick is full of lead. The email then goes on to say that lead causes cancer.

Good news: This email is not true. For one thing, lead has not been conclusively linked to cancer. For another, rubbing metal over even plain beeswax leaves a mark. And test after test proves there's not even a trace of lead in wax. At the end of the day, experts agree that the mark comes from the metal, not the lipstick or wax it's being rubbed against.

As early as 2003, people were asking the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about this rumor. No wonder. They were worried that their lipstick and other cosmetics were, in fact, poisonous. The FDA has written several bulletins on the subject. But even now, almost 10 years later, it's still getting questions about lead in lipstick, so it seems this email is still around, because the rumor hasn't been put to rest.

Nonetheless, much lipstick does have small amounts of lead. They're amounts that are well under the safety limits set out by the FDA, but this could be where the scare started.

Still, lead is not something to be taken lightly. Although there's no sure link to cancer, lead is a poison. And it's in a lot of household items, foods, hobby materials, toys, etc. It's especially common in products from other countries, where there isn't the tight safety regulation we enjoy in the U.S.

A historical foundation

Centuries ago, most cosmetics and beauty products did contain lead, often very large amounts of it. Makeup is, basically, paint for the face. And as many of us know, lead was used in paint until very recently. In fact, it's only been since 1978 that we've been able to enjoy lead-free paints and other products. That's when the FDA made lead in paint illegal. But even as late as the 1800s, women (and some men) were poisoned by lead in cosmetics, and did die from it. Of course, there were all kinds of other poisons in these cosmetics, too. Arsenic, mercury, you name it. Nonetheless, lead was a real problem.

What is lead, and why is it a problem?

In small amounts, lead is a fairly low threat. It's a naturally occurring heavy metal that's mined from the earth, like gold, silver, or copper. Because lead is found in so many things, it can build up in our bodies. It's most dangerous when it's eaten or inhaled in dust form. Dust is a major carrier of lead. Children are especially at risk for lead poisoning. Part of this is because children tend to put all kinds of things in their mouths – some of which have, no doubt, been on the floor.

Lead in house paint was outlawed in 1978. Before then, children who came into contact with lead paint or the dust from it were poisoned more often. The risks were very high in old homes or other buildings, which had layers and layers of lead paint. Lead is also in older plumbing, old window blinds, leaded glass, bullets, and some old cookware or food storage items. Lead was also in "regular" gasoline. That's why the gas we buy today is called "unleaded."

Lead poisoning was a not-unusual problem until the United States government teamed with many consumer groups to change the rules.

What is lead poisoning?

There is no agreement on what is a "safe" amount of lead, because lead is a poison. But experts do agree that there are dangerous levels.

Lead poisoning happens when too much lead is absorbed into our bodies. This can be very dangerous. Like we said, lead is found in the earth and is thus very common in dust, but it's also found in many products, especially products from other countries that aren't under FDA supervision.

One very high dose of lead can lead to a health emergency. But it's much more common for lead to build up in our systems over time.

Again, lead tends to hurt children more than adults: it attacks children's growing nerves and brains. This can lead to poor mental development.

Lead poisoning can also cause

  • Behavior or attention problems
  • Failure at school
  • Hearing problems
  • Kidney damage
  • Lower IQ
  • Slow body growth

As lead levels build up through continued exposure, health problems get worse. Pregnant women should be the most careful, as unborn babies are at the highest risk.

And needless to say, too much lead is bad for anyone.

The National Institutes of Health lists these symptoms of lead poisoning:

  • Abdominal pain and cramping (usually the first sign of a high, toxic dose of lead poison)
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Anemia
  • Constipation
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Loss of previous developmental skills (in young children)
  • Low appetite and energy
  • Reduced sensations
  • A strange taste in the mouth

Very high levels of lead may cause vomiting, staggering walk, muscle weakness, seizures, or coma.

Lead poisoning can be treated. The common path is called "chelate therapy." Doctors give patients a "binding agent," and the lead in the bloodstream links itself to the binding molecules. From there our bodies can remove the lead and the agent naturally.

Ways to avoid lead in daily life

Lead is everywhere, but again, in small amounts – like in our lipstick – it's not deadly. So lead poisoning can be prevented. The best way to do this is to avoid things with high lead content. Remember that lead is most dangerous to children, and dust is a major source of lead. In particular, the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say it's wise to:

  • Make sure children don't have access to peeling paint, or items painted with lead-based paint that they might put into their mouths.
  • If you live in a home built before 1978, test paint and dust from your home for lead. Your local health department can help.
  • If you're renovating a home built before 1978 and are pregnant, don't live in the house, and don't let children live there, either, until the work is done and the cleanup is complete.
  • If you suspect you may have lead paint in your house, get advice on safe removal from the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) at 800-RID-LEAD or the National Information Center at 800-LEAD-FYI. Another excellent source of information is the National Lead Information Center at (800) 424-5323.
  • Keep your home as dust-free as possible.
  • Have everyone wash their hands before eating.
  • Throw out old painted toys if you do not know whether the paint contains lead.
  • Use only cold water from the tap for drinking, cooking, making baby formula, etc. Your home's plumbing can be a source of lead, and hot water is more likely to contain more lead than cold water.
  • Let tap water run for a minute before drinking or cooking with it.
  • If your water has tested high in lead, install an effective filtering device or switch to bottled water for drinking and cooking.
  • Avoid canned goods from foreign countries until the ban on lead soldered cans goes into effect.
  • If imported wine containers have a lead foil wrapper, wipe the rim and neck of the bottle with a towel moistened with lemon juice, vinegar, or wine before using.
  • Don't store wine, spirits, or vinegar-based salad dressings in lead crystal decanters for long periods of time, because lead can get into the liquid.
  • Wash children's hands and toys frequently, since household dust is a known lead source.
  • Wet-mop floors and wet-wipe windowsills and window wells every two to three weeks to remove lead-containing dust.
  • Keep children from playing in bare dirt. If you have patches of bare dirt, plant them in grass or cover them with mulch or wood chips before allowing children to play there. Sandboxes are also a good option.
  • Shower and change your clothes after coming into contact with lead-based products – for example, making bullets, using lead solder, shooting at a firing range, handling fishing sinkers, making jewelry, or working with stained or leaded glass.
  • Painted toys and decorations made outside the United States may contain higher levels of lead. Check the CDC's list of recalled toys to see if your children might be playing with toys that have too high of a lead content. Toy jewelry is another common source of too much lead. For a general Lead Recall List, check here.
  • Avoid eating candy imported from Mexico.
  • Avoid using traditional home remedies or cosmetics that contain too much lead.
  • Check the labels on children's art supplies and paint sets.
  • Choose faucets that are labeled "lead-free."
  • Be aware that pewter pitchers and dinnerware contain lead.
  • Storage batteries also contain lead.

But chances are, most of these things have a higher lead content than your lipstick.

So why are your cosmetics fairly low-risk?

Since 1978, different government agencies have been in charge of different areas of lead control. The FDA is in charge of what are called "additives" – the flavors, scents, preservatives, and dyes, among other things, that are added to the various foods and drugs we consume. Dyes are used to color just about everything you can imagine, and dyes, like paint, can contain lead. But as we said, science has shown that tiny amounts of lead, measured in units called "parts per million," are not dangerous. The FDA has set limits on the amount of lead that can be in additives. This includes the dyes that are used in lipstick.

So while there are very small amounts of lead in the dyes that are used to color lipstick, the amounts are within the limits allowed by the FDA.

That limit is no more than 20 parts per million (ppm). And most lipsticks contain less than 4 ppm. The highest levels are a little over 7 ppm. The FDA study shows the average amount of lead in lipstick coloring is 1.1 ppm. As the FDA says, this is a very small amount.

The FDA also says that since we only use a few swipes of lipstick on a very small area of our skin, our exposure is limited. So unless you cover your entire body in thick coats of lipstick you probably don't have much to worry about.

So how does your favorite lipstick stack up?

The FDA has published a list of the levels of lead in the additives used in some of the most popular lipsticks. See how yours rates.

Look up the Lead Recall List

This can be a handy source of information if you're wondering about lead levels in your life. The Centers for Disease Control keeps track of high-lead products like toys, jewelry, accessories, food ware, office supplies, and clothing on its Lead Recall List. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has recalled items shown there because they contain too much lead.

Lead isn't something to take lightly

Lead is a poison. And it is still a dangerous poison in high doses. People are exposed to lead every day through dust, paint, lead pipe and plumbing, lead build-up in dirt, and other sources. And some people are exposed to life-threatening amounts.

Lead poisoning can happen suddenly, or lead can build up in our blood over time. So it makes sense to pay attention to lead in your environment, especially if you are pregnant or have children. However, thanks to consumer and government groups like the FDA, if your lipstick is made and sold in the United States, it shouldn't be anything to worry about.

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