Science! // Let’s Talk Abut… Lead in Cosmetics, Part 3

This is my third and final installment of this series about lead in cosmetics. In part 1, I talked a bit about what lead is, just for some understanding. In part 2, I talked about what lead does in the body (or really, why it is so toxic). This post is going to be specifically about how much lead we get exposed to in cosmetics, and whether or not I think it’s worth being worried about.

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Yes, lead is toxic, but how does it enter our body through cosmetics? 

The most common way for lead to get into our bodies through cosmetics is through lipstick. This shouldn’t be too surprising; our lips are literally the closest to our mouths, and we lick them often. Even if you aren’t a lip-licker, drinking and eating cause us to ingest a small amount of lipstick as well. So yes, we ingest/eat it.

But it’s not just lipstick that is a concern. Every time you use a powder product, there is some “kicked up” powder that gets into the air. Of course, you breath this in. So, lead in eye shadows and other powder products may be inhaled.

It is unlikely for lead to be absorbed through the skin, but handling products that contain lead raise the risk that we will ingest it, especially if we don’t remember to wash our hands. If we handle lead products near skin that is broken (scrapes, scratches, cuts, or other open wounds), it can enter the blood stream that way. That said, certain “creamier” products that contain lead, such as kohl or kajal eyeliner, pose a risk. It’s important to note, though, that in the US, kohl is not legal to be used in cosmetics because of the risk.

One other thing to be aware of: lead is in some hair dyes. We will get into that in a bit.

Does the FDA regulate the amount of lead in cosmetics?

The short answer to this is: not exactly. I know this is confusing, but let me explain. While the FDA has no regulation on the amount of lead in cosmetics, it does regulate the amount of lead in color additives. You’re going to have to trust that the FDA has done studies to determine what acceptable levels are, but they list the “maximum” level of lead at 20ppm, and they require all dyes to be batch-tested before they can be used in cosmetics. If you’re unfamiliar with batch testing, let me explain it. Dyes and pigments are created by manufacturers, and in order to make it cost-effective, they make a big “batch” of it, all at once. Even though a lipstick may only contain a gram of pigment, batches can be several pounds. To test the batch, only a small sample of the batch is tested. The theory is that all compounds in the batch are probably evenly distributed, so the amount of lead in one gram at the top will be the same as the amount of lead in one gram at the bottom or middle of the barrel. The FDA regulates that lead levels be no more than 20 parts per million (about 0.00002%) in most dyes and pigments. That’s pretty gosh darn small.

As it is, lead acetate (the most common lead-based pigment) is not approved for use in general cosmetics or eye-area cosmetics; it’s only approved in small quantities (<0.6%) in hair dyes. It is not lead acetate that is the problem but rather lead contamination. It’s nearly impossible to get a 100% pure product when we are talking about dyes, and unfortunately lead finds its way.

If we don’t need any lead, why is lead allowed at all? Shouldn’t I look for lead-free items?

Here’s the thing about this: lead is a contaminant. It gets into places we don’t put it. Cosmetic industries (and food industries) do not just put lead in their products. Lead is all around us, as are many hazardous chemicals/elements. There are radioactive elements in our toothpaste and even in bananas (naturally, even). Lead getting into things is just an inevitability. Our bodies can process out some lead; it’s just not very good at it. Some people will say that the FDA is meaningless because they have previously approved some food additives or drugs that we later found out to be harmful. The FDA approves chemicals based on current research, so many additives may be approved if short-term effects are not seen, and then they are taken away when long-term effects are observed. And sometimes, the research is just inconclusive. While I cannot tell you what or how to think, I will say this: I do personally trust the FDA, but if I’m an “at risk” population, I may look into something further myself. If you are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant, looking for items lower in lead may very well be a good idea.

If lead is a contaminant, couldn’t it get into cosmetics in other ways, not just through dyes and pigments? Should I be worried?

Yes, lead can contaminate cosmetics at any point, but the truth is that the overall amount of lead in cosmetics just isn’t very huge. I don’t think I need to report every lipstick that’s been studied, but from one study which tested lead in 400 different lipsticks, lead levels in lipstick range from about 7ppm (in Maybelline’s Color Sensational lipstick line) to <0.026ppm (that’s VERY tiny) in Clinique’s “Almost Lipstick” in Black Honey. It’s true that these values can change depending upon the batch of lipstick, but in another study of 20 lipsticks, the high was 3.06ppm in CoverGirl’s IncrediFULL lipstick (which has sense been discontinued).  That is clearly much lower than the 20ppm limit that the FDA set for dyes.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: dyes and pigments are meant to be diluted in cosmetics, especially on the lips. So let’s look at it another way. The FDA regulates the amount of lead in candies (for obvious reasons) to be no more than 0.1ppm. Now you’re probably thinking “Maybelline’s Color Sensational lipsticks had over 70 times that much!!” Which is true- but consider how much you eat. A typical hard candy, such as those “starlight mints” that you get at the end of your meal at a restaurant, is about 5 grams. Five grams. And you eat it all at once. Now, a typical lipstick based off of my collection is about 3.5-4 grams, which is less than one candy. Many of us could eat a starlight candy a day, but how long does it take us to finish a lipstick? If a tube of Maybelline Color Sensational Lipstick lasts you two months, and you ingest all of the lead found in it, you still aren’t getting any more lead than you would eating a small candy with 0.1ppm lead each day.

My point is this: FDA regulations for dyes and pigments seem to work well enough to keep total lead amounts in our lipsticks (at the very least) safe for typical use. Our bodies can and do remove some lead from our systems, so the amount of lead we are exposed to probably isn’t a concern. 

I do say “probably” and not “definitely” because I have yet to see a study confirming one way or the other, but logic to me states that it isn’t worth your worry, at least for US-based cosmetics.

Should I be worried about knock-offs?

To me, this is the biggest question. US-based cosmetics are most likely fine for typical use, but what about the fakes that you can buy overseas? What about the obviously fake lipsticks that Lippe Box peddles (I so cannot wait until they are no longer a thing)?

I do not have a good answer for that, because the truth is: we don’t know. We don’t know where they are getting their dyes- it could be from reputable, FDA-approved sources, or it could be homemade dyes made with lead acetate. We don’t know what their facilities are like- they could make their products in old-school pewter bowls (you know, the kind with lead in them). We just don’t know.

Anecdotal evidence of safety is not true evidence. “Nobody’s ever gotten sick” means nothing to me when we are talking about lead, which has accumulating effects. Lead poisoning is not like food poisoning; it doesn’t “hit you” and you puke and get sick that way. It’s more insidious. You don’t notice it at first, but after several years of exposure, that’s when you notice the effects, like infertility. And many of the effects, when they do happen, you aren’t going to attribute to the lead. Infertility has many causes, and if you do have to deal with that struggle, your first thought is not going to be “It must’ve been from my knock-off Mac lipsticks!”

Google searches reveal all kinds of horror stories about counterfeit cosmetics, and you can go ahead and search yourself. Most of them are reactions to other chemicals (not lead), so don’t think you’re in the clear if your eyeshadow doesn’t leave your eyes swollen shut. I have yet to find a study on lead in counterfeit products, but my idea is this: don’t risk it.  Sure, you might feel cool if you can finally afford an “ABH” lippie, but in this day and age, several affordable brands make safe, great quality products- and your safety and health should alwaybe your first priority.

The takeaway: in the US, the FDA regulates lead levels in dyes and pigments, not cosmetics.  The amount allowed in dyes is much higher than the amount allowed in food, but we ingest much less cosmetics than we do food. In studies done in US-sold cosmetics, overall lead quantities are not likely to cause any lasting health effects through normal use. However, there is no way to verify the safety of counterfeit cosmetics, and you may wish to discontinue use of those for your long-term health.

I hope you enjoyed this series or at least learned something about lead!

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