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Is that Lead in Your Lipstick? FDA Tests Reveal Raised Lead Levels in U.S. Lipsticks

by Amy WesterveltForbes
February 7th, 2012

In 2007, largely in response to a report released by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the FDA began testing various lipsticks sold in the United States. After testing some 400 brands, FDA scientists concluded that none of them contained unsafe levels of lead. Many of them did contain lead, but all were below the 5 parts-per-million recommended as safe by the state of California (known to have the most conservative law on the use of lead in consumer products), and far below the 10ppm considered to be the maximum safe limit by Health Canada, which has drafted guidelines on impurities in cosmetics, such as lead. At the time, those weighing in with the most lead contained about 3 parts per million.  The FDA said there was no cause for consumer concern, especially given how little lipstick is actually ingested.

Then in December 2011, the FDA updated its tests and posted the results on its website rather quietly. There are now two brands (Maybelline and L’Oreal) with lipsticks above California’s standard–Maybelline was measured at 7.19 ppm and L’Oreal at 7.0. Both products are manufactured by L’Oreal (Note: L’Oreal did not respond to a request for comment, but this post will be updated if and when the company makes any sort of statement about the latest lead tests). Several other products, including Nars and CoverGirl lipsticks, are now hovering just below the 5ppm level (Nars was measured at 4.93, CoverGirl at 4.92).

To be clear, lead is not used as an ingredient in these products, but is instead considered an impurity. Back in 2007, the Personal Care Products Council, a trade group representing some of the largest cosmetics manufacturers in the United States (including L’Oreal) said:

"Lead is never used as an intentionally added ingredient in or as an additive to lipstick.  However, because lead is found naturally in air, water, and soil, it may also be found at extremely low levels as a trace contaminant in the raw ingredients used in formulating cosmetics, just as it is in many thousands of other products."

To put the latest lipstick lead levels in context, the EPA’s maximum allowable lead level in drinking water is 15 parts per billion. The EPA’s goal for lead in drinking water is zero, which is what consumer advocates would like to see happen in consumer products as well. In the case of lead in lipsticks, the jump from a maximum of 3.06ppm to 7.19ppm is disconcerting; most consumers would prefer to see those numbers decreasing as opposed to more than doubling in three years.

Coincidentally, in January an advisory committee to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report asserting that there is no safe level of lead for children and stressing the importance of preventing lead exposure for children and pregnant women. While lipstick is not sold to children, any mother will tell you it’s hard to keep them away from it, and pregnant women are often not appropriately cautioned about lead levels in lipstick.

“Lead is a proven neurotoxin that can cause learning, language and behavioral problems such as lowered IQ, reduced school performance and increased aggression,” Sean Palfrey, M.D., a professor of pediatrics and public health atBoston University and the medical director of Boston‘s Lead Poisoning Prevention Program said. “Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure, because lead easily crosses the placenta and enters the fetal brain where it can interfere with normal development.”

While the cosmetics industry continues to stress the fact that, unlike several other products that might contain lead–including the tap water of many Americans–lipstick is not ingested, Mark Mitchell, M.D., MPH, policy advisor of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice and co-chair of theEnvironmental Health Task Force for the National Medical Association, notes that lead “builds up in the body over time and lead-containing lipstick applied several times a day, every day, can add up to significant exposure levels.”

Notably, the cheapest lipstick on the FDA’s list (Wet & Wild Mega Mixers Lip Balm) also had the lowest amounts of lead, leading the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to conclude that “price is not an indicator of good manufacturing practices.”

The advocacy group issued a letter to the FDA today calling on it to act on its latest tests of lead in lipsticks, and referencing the CDC’s recent report. “The CDC committee’s report identifies imported cosmetics as a risk factor for lead exposure in pregnant and lactating women,” the letter reads. “However, the FDA study on lead in lipstick indicates that lead is also a problem with cosmetics manufactured in the US.”

On its website, the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors notes that it is considering setting an upper limit for lead in lipsticks, but to date no such limit has been set.