It’s All in the Kiss: The Tricky Love Affair of Lead and Lipstick

A series of recent news articles has been painting the cosmetics industry in a less than appealing light, raising an alarm with consumer protection and rights groups who are now asking that the United States’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) set limits on how much lead can be found in cosmetics. The news stems from the FDA’s latest look and analysis of 400 different lipsticks, bought from retail stores between February and July of 2010 and still currently on the market.

According to their report, each of the 400 lipsticks tested contained varying levels of lead, from the very low (Wet’n’ Wild’s Mega Mixers Lipbalm Bahama Mama, with <0.026 parts per million) to the uncomfortably high (Maybelline’s Color Sensational Pink Petal, with 7.19 parts per million). On a further note, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics points out that the least expensive option (Wet’n’ Wild) also drew up the least amount of lead, prompting a spokesperson of the group to comment that “price is not an indicator of good manufacturing practices.”  But that may have already seemed obvious to many.  The complete list of lipsticks tested and their corresponding levels of lead can be found at the FDA’s website.

For a better idea of why this is raising concern, please consider: when it comes to American drinking water, 15 parts per billion is the cut off (with a larger goal of keeping it down to nil), and children’s products manufactured in the United States cannot contain any more than 100 parts per million of lead.  The cosmetics industry hopes to alleviate worry by pointing out that unlike water, for instance, lipstick is not intended to be consumed by the user; however, it is likely that throughout the hours of wear, along with the repeated applications, certain amounts of lipstick will be consumed—and when it comes to pregnant mothers, the level of danger is raised even higher.

“Lead builds in the body over time, and lead-containing lipstick applied several times a day, every day, can add up to significant exposure levels,” explains Mark Mitchell, co-chairman for the Environmental Health Task Force for the National Medical Association. 

What is perhaps most troubling is the fact that, to date, the FDA does not have any restrictions or regulations concerning an acceptable amount of lead to be found in cosmetics presently instated.  Without this oversight, it is likely that lead levels will grow or a best plateau where they are at—and there is evidence that this is already occurring.  Maybelline’s Pink Petal when tested this time around was found to have lead levels twice as high as was previously reported by the FDA in a similar study from 2008.

Even through all of the hoopla, the FDA maintains that they “do not consider the lead levels we found in the lipsticks to be a safety concern…The lead levels we found are within the limits recommended by other public health authorities for lead in cosmetics.” And that is precisely where the problem lies.  Without set rules, lead will continue to sneak into cosmetics and with its presence so too will come some detrimental health issues.

Already, senators like John Kerry, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein have written to the Commissioner of Food and Drugs regarding this issue; and now consumers are lending their voices as well by signing petitions like the one here, which targets and presses the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition to instate restrictions on lead in cosmetics.  

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