Although that email hoax of a couple years ago, claiming lipstick caused cancer, was a bit over the top, it is a bit worrisome that the FDA has indeed found lead in some of the most widely used brands of American lipstick.

How much lead are we talking? Well, the FDA found lead in all 20 lipsticks it tested — with the average level being 1.07 ppm — a level 10 times higher than the FDA’s 0.1 ppm limit for lead in candy, which doesn’t bode well for kids who might use a parent’s lipstick while playing dress up. Even scarier, the highest lead level the FDA found was 3.06 ppm!

That paragraph shows the reason that the environmental movement is often dismissed by those of us with hardheaded scientific training.

Note the 1.07 ppm, that is part per million.

But to say it’s “ten times” the FDA limit for lead in candy ignores that 1) candy is eaten by kids, whose brains are much more vulnerable to lead poisoning; and 2) the average kid eats a lot more candy by weight than he would get from a rare incidence of using mama’s lipstick (unless, of course, if a toddler went around eating a tube or two of mama’s lipstick every day for months on end).

But yes, I would worry about lead in lipstick. But the real question is if 1) the amount of lead in the lipsticks could accumulate to cause human toxicity and 2) if the lead is in a form that would be absorbed by the body, and 3) how much lead is absorbed from lipstick? What are the blood lead levels in women who use lipstick versus those who do not? Is it high enough to caution pregnant women not to use lipstick?

Permissible lead levels for food, water, and soil can be found HERE.

Lead is pretty nasty stuff, and right now there is a minor scandal in China because of lead poisoning in children due to a smelter that released toxic fumes containing lead.

And lead is all around us:

  • Several environmental factors expose children to lead hazards, among which are dust, soil, paint chips, folk remedies, and the use of old ceramic cookware.
  • Several parental occupations place children at risk, including lead mining, glass making, printing, and welding. Workers should be instructed to change their working clothes at work.

The environmental movement and the public health authorities have long fought lead pollution, not only eliminating lead in paint (the major cause of lead poisoning in the past) but insisting that we docs check the blood lead levels of all toddlers.

And the presence of lead in exhaust fumes is one reason we now use “unleaded” gasoline.

Outbreaks of lead poisoning have come from many different causes.

Outbreaks of lead poisoning usually hit the news now and then: from using ceramics containing lead, especially if wine or acidic drinks were placed in them, in those who work with ceramics or welding, and in teenagers who “huff” gasoline.

Overseas, when lead based pigments were used in commercial Kohl for the eyes, some cases of lead poisoning were  indeed found.

And lead in toys and even vinyl mini blinds that are gnawed by teething toddlers can be a major worry.

But so far, the amount in lipstick is probably “safe”, although I suspect that the companies, thanks to the pressure of environmental groups, will clean up their ingredients.

But all of this makes me wonder: What about lipsticks and other forms of makeup in other countries?

So it comes to this: Should you change to a “safer” lipstick? And what is safe?

There are other possible health problems with cosmetics that can cause minor health problems, from allergy to epidemics of “pink eye” (bacterial or viral conjunctivitis) from sharing tubes of mascara.

And switching to “natural” products only will help if you are sure that the natural products don’t contain lead or other heavy metals as a colour enhancer.

As for me: I am allergic to all lipstick, so rarely use it. So even if my lipsticks do have tiny amounts of lead, I don’t use lipstick enough for me to worry.

But for daily users, if I were to buy lipstick, I would check first if it was on the “low lead” or “lead free” list, or buy organic, especially if I were pregnant.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She writes about medical topics at HeyDoc Xanga blog.

I am allergic to lipstick, so rarely use it.

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