Many lipsticks contain trace amounts of lead, as revealed in testing several years ago by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a consumer watchdog group. Subsequent analyses by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) detected lead in all lipsticks sampled (over 400 products in total), at varying levels. But does this pose a health risk? Are other potentially toxic metals also present in lipstick? Researchers here at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health have tried to find some answers.
As reported in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2013, they analyzed the level of lead and 8 other metals in 32 popular lipsticks and lip glosses. Next, they estimated how much would be ingested a day, based on estimates of normal usage (women apply lipstick 2.35 times a day, on average) and compared this amount to “acceptable daily intakes,” based on public health guidelines set in California. The researchers assumed that all the lipstick applied is eventually ingested.
Lipstick: metal detection
All products contained titanium, aluminum and manganese, with titanium and aluminum found at the highest levels of all metals. But the metal levels varied widely among products, with no clear patterns based on brands, color, cost or type.
- Lead was detected in 24 out of 32 products, but all within the acceptable limit, based on average use and even heavy daily use (defined as applying lipstick about 9 times a day). The previous analyses found higher lead levels, possibly due to differences among the studies in the way the products were dissolved or in the products sampled.
- Based on average daily intake, 10 products exceeded the acceptable limit for chromium. At heavy use, 22 products exceeded the limit for chromium, 10 for cadmium, 7 for manganese, and 1 for aluminum. Metals are often added to cosmetics as colorants, or they may be present as contaminants from the ingredients or possibly introduced during manufacture. Not all are harmful—and some are even essential for health at trace levels.
But other metals are risky—or potentially risky. Lead can harm the central nervous system, causing mental, physical and behavioral impairments, especially in children. Exposure to low levels, even if it produces no noticeable symptoms, may still have long-term adverse effects, including increased risk for hypertension, cognitive decline and kidney damage. Certain forms of chromium have been linked to stomach tumors and lung cancer (though it wasn’t disclosed what form was in the lipsticks), while cadmium has been linked to lung cancer, bone impairment and kidney disease. Aluminum is a neurotoxin. And even manganese, which is a required nutrient (in tiny amounts, micrograms), may have adverse neurological and neurobehavioral effects at higher exposure (in milligrams).
Nonetheless, the FDA maintains that the lead in lipstick does not pose a safety concern, since the lipstick is meant for topical use and, the agency contends, only small amounts of lead are ingested. The cosmetics industry agrees. Of note also, lipstick is just one source of exposure to such metals, which are found in air, water and soil. We may ingest far more of some of them in food.
But other experts, including the UC Berkeley scientists, argue that no amount of lead is safe, especially for children and pregnant women, and that more study is needed to assess the potential risks of ingesting other metals in lipstick. Katharine Hammond, Ph.D., coauthor of the Berkeley study, is particularly concerned about the potential for cadmium in lipstick to have harmful effects, especially in people who have impaired kidney function. The European Union bans the use of certain metals, including lead, chromium and cadmium, in all cosmetics, though they may still contain trace levels due to contamination.
Lipstick safety: what to do
The FDA is evaluating the need for a lead limit in lipstick. In the meantime, you needn’t kiss your lipstick goodbye—just don’t go overboard, since heavy use, in particular, could expose you to possible risky levels of some metals over time. Blot it after applying to reduce the amount that gets swallowed. And don’t let children play with lipstick. The FDA has a list of the lipstick brands it tested, so can see where your lipstick falls in lead levels or use the list to find a product with less lead. It's important to note that these analyses didn’t include other metals, and the products may have changed since they were tested a few years ago. You could also consider buying lipsticks (and other cosmetics) made in Europe.