Skip to main content

Are lipsticks dangerous?

By Sharima Rasanayagam
updated 11:31 AM EDT, Fri April 4, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sharima Rasanayagam: Studies found higher level of lead in some lipsticks
  • Rasanayagam: This raises concerns about the safety of a popular product
  • She says FDA and cosmetic industry should pay attention to long-term effects
  • Rasanayagam: Congress needs to update the laws regulating cosmetics

Editor's note: Sharima Rasanayagam is the director of science for the Breast Cancer Fund, an organization that aims to transform how society thinks about and uses chemicals and radiation, with the goal of preventing cancer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Every day millions of women apply lipstick without a second thought. What many don't know is that lipsticks may contain lead, the notorious metal that can cause learning, language and behavioral problems. Lead is a neurotoxin and can be dangerous even at small doses.

So what's lead doing in lipsticks?

Not all lipsticks contain lead, but a number of studies in recent years show that the metal is more prevalent than previously thought.

Sharima Rasanayagam
Sharima Rasanayagam

In 2007, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics conducted a study -- "A Poison Kiss" -- that detected lead in 61% of the 33 lipsticks tested, with levels ranging from 0.03 ppm to 0.65 ppm. Parts per million (ppm) is the measurement of lead in the environment.

Medical experts say there is no safe level of lead in the blood. The FDA says it doesn't consider the lead levels it found in lipsticks to be a safety issue.

No lipstick lists lead as an ingredient. The amounts are small, but the presence of lead in lipstick, which is ingested and absorbed through the skin, raises concerns about the safety of a cosmetic product that is wildly popular among women.

Urged on by both consumers and the cosmetics industry, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration conducted its own testing in 2010. The FDA's results were even more astonishing: The agency detected lead in all 400 lipsticks tested, ranging from 0.9 to 3.06 ppm -- four times higher than the levels observed in the study done by Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

And lead isn't the only toxic metal you may be applying to your lips. In a recent study, University of California researchers tested eight lipsticks and 24 lip glosses and detected nine toxic heavy metals, including chromium, cadmium, manganese, aluminum and lead.

The FDA said, "We have assessed the potential for harm to consumers from use of lipstick containing lead at the levels found in both rounds of testing. Lipstick, as a product intended for topical use with limited absorption, is ingested only in very small quantities. We do not consider the lead levels we found in the lipsticks to be a safety concern."

Likewise, the cosmetics industry also doesn't see this as an issue, saying that the dose makes the poison -- in other words, the trace amounts of heavy metals in lipsticks are not harmful.

But the FDA noted, "Although we do not believe that the lead content found in our recent lipstick analyses poses a safety concern, we are evaluating whether there may be a need to recommend an upper limit for lead in lipstick in order to further protect the health and welfare of consumers. "

Indeed, what the FDA and the cosmetics industry have been ignoring is cumulative exposure and potential long-term adverse effects.

It's true that a single lipstick application will not lead to harm. And the good news is that not all lipsticks contain detectable levels of lead or other heavy metals. (And by the way, cost doesn't seem to be a factor; a cheap or expensive lipstick isn't the determinant of how much lead is present.)

The problem is when women who wear lipstick apply it two to 14 times a day, according to the University of California study. The result is that they are ingesting and absorbing through their lips as much as 87 milligrams of product a day, the study says.

Women are not only applying their lipsticks several times a day, but they also are doing this in the span of a whole lifetime, which means that exposure to lead and other heavy metals adds up and can potentially affect their health.

One challenge for people wanting to avoid exposure is that none of the metals, with the exception of aluminum, are deliberately added to lipsticks and lip glosses. The metals are contaminants that are present in the pigments and base materials used to make the products. Because the metals are not ingredients, cosmetics companies are not required to list them on products' ingredient labels.

The law regulating cosmetics passed Congress in 1938 and has never been updated. The FDA possesses no legal authority to make sure products are safe before they are sold. Nor is the agency empowered to pull dangerous products from store shelves. It's the Wild West for cosmetics companies, which have very few rules restricting chemical ingredients used in everything from shampoos to lotions to lipsticks.

As the contamination of lip products with heavy metals makes it clear, allowing the industry to police itself is not the best idea.

We need the FDA to be empowered by Congress and to take action so women won't face any health risks when they put on makeup. Cosmetics companies should be required to adhere to a standard for best manufacturing processes to limit metal contamination.

For now, consumers should take precautions to protect themselves from heavy metal exposure from lip products. First, use less. If you find yourself reapplying lipstick 14 times a day, consider cutting back. Second, don't let children use lipstick, as their young bodies are especially vulnerable to toxic metals. Then let's get to work to make sure that by the time they've grown up, we have solved the problem of toxic chemicals in cosmetics.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT