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Lipstick: The Price for Pretty Lips May Be Heavy... Metals

May 09, 2013 | Updated Jul 09, 2013

More than 80,000 chemicals are produced, used, and present in the United States. This is one of their stories.

A new study says picture-perfect lips may be nothing to smile about.

I suspect that most people would be surprised to know that lipstick contains toxic metals. It was a surprise to me. But it shouldn't have been.

It's been known for quite some time that lead, "a powerful neurotoxin," can be a fairly commonplace impurity in the colors [pdf] used in lipsticks. In 2007, for example, a consumer watchdog group, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, tested 33 popular brands of lipstick and found that about 60 percent contained significant amounts of lead (up to concentrations of 0.65 parts per million).

Does that mean that lipstick is not safe? And if not, what can be done about it? That's where the Food and Drug Administration comes in... well, sort of comes in.

How Lipstick Safety Is (Not) Guaranteed 

Lipstick (along with lip gloss) is covered by the cosmetics section of the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act). But you should not interpret the word "covered" to even approximate "regulated" because the FDA has very little actual authority to ensure the safety of cosmetics that are sold in the American marketplace.

While there is an expectation that manufacturers sell products that are safe when used as intended, the FDA cannot require manufacturers to do premarket testing to ensure their safety. Nor can the FDA carry out its own premarket testing. And if a problem with a product is found after it's already on the market, the FDA cannot even mandate a recall; all it can do is request a voluntary recall. (More here, here and here.)

Fortunately, the FD&C Act has one exception and it's an exception that directly affects lipsticks: "Color additives are subject to a strict system of approval."

With this authority the FDA can set limits on the amount of any hazardous constituent in the color additives used in lipsticks. Interestingly (and perhaps illustrative of the Byzantine nature of federal law), FDA's authority does not extend to the lipstick itself. (Details here and here.)

Determining How Much -- and How -- Neurotoxins on the Lips Are Safe

Following the 2007 Campaign for Safe Cosmetics revelations about lead in lipstick, the FDA decided to do its own study. And just as the watchdog group had done before it, the agency found lead to be ubiquitous in U.S. lipsticks. A 2011 survey based on 400 samples observed lead levels ranging from 0.026 to 7.19 parts per million with an average content of 1.11 parts per million. (See how your brand fared.)

The FDA concluded, however, that as long as the amount of lead used in lipstick coloring is below 20 parts per million, it does not pose a health threat. Why not? Because, since lipstick is "intended for topical use with limited absorption," it "is ingested only in very small quantities." Bottom line to consumers: Lead in lipsticks poses no threat, because so little of it makes it into our mouths.

Does that spell relief for all you lipstick-wearers (and kissers thereof)? If so, I'm sorry to report that a new study published online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives may upset your sense of lipstick security.

New Study: A Look at Nine Heavy Metals in Lipstick

Sa Lui of the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues looked at 32 lip products popular with teens in southern California, and measured not just the amount of lead that was in these products, but also how much aluminum, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, copper, manganese, nickel, and titanium were in them as well.** Estimating acceptable daily intakes for each metal based on existing health guidelines, the authors compared those with usage rates from a previous study to assess how much metal the teens were ingesting.

Their results found that:

  • All nine metals studied were detected in some of the products.**
  • Manganese, titanium and aluminum were detected in all samples. More than 90 percent of samples had detectable levels of chromium and nickel. More than 70 percent of samples had detectable levels of copper and lead.
  • The average concentration of lead was 0.36 parts per million with a maximum of 1.32 parts per million. Lead concentrations in all of the products were below the acceptable daily intake value even assuming a high usage rate.**But, in some of the lip products, levels of aluminum, cadmium, chromium, and manganese exceeded the authors' estimates of acceptable daily intake values. A bit troubling, as both cadmium and chromium are carcinogens, aluminum is a neurotoxin, and manganese, while an essential trace element necessary for health, can cause brain damage at high levels.
  • Interestingly the authors "did not observe clear patterns indicating that metal concentrations were related to specific brands, product type (lipstick vs. lip gloss), color, or cost." So, not much help to consumers trying to choose the safest product to adorn their lips.
The authors recommend:

"Cosmetics safety should be assessed not only by the presence of hazardous contents, but also by comparing estimated exposures with health based standards. In addition to lead, metals such as aluminum, cadmium, chromium and manganese require further investigation."

At this point I would guess that the ball is back in FDA's court. In the meantime I suggest a sign be posted at the lipstick counter: Use At Your Own Risk -- Don't Lick Your Lips. Even better, break out your old Alice Cooper vinyl -- better to have heavy metal knocking around your head than near the tip of your tongue.

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End Notes

* Feel safer? If you do, you might want to check out (or review) the 2011 Brazilian blowout (et al hair smoothing products) saga in which concerns were raised about the "potential formaldehyde exposure." Spoiler alert: the FDA couldn't stop the manufacturer from selling its hazardous formulation.

** Study caveats:  The study is a preliminary one designed in part to understand what other toxic constituents might be in lip products. Metal concentrations may be underestimated as a result of incomplete digestion of lip products during analytical testing. Authors assumed that 100% of the metal concentration in the lip product was ingested.

Related Link

Read more about potential hazards in everyday products in our Chemical Marketplace series.

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