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Is Your Lipstick Making You Sick? Pucker Up for the Kiss of Death


Lead in LipstickLipstick. Perhaps one of women’s favorite cosmetics. The perfect accessory. Without it, many women feel naked. It has become a symbol of adult sexuality and maturity, often the first cosmetic that teenagers are allowed to apply. It makes women feel sexy, confident and desirable. But at what cost? Painting your lips red may actually mean painting your lips with small amounts of lead. Ahhh . . . what women will do for the sake of beauty.

The History of Lipstick

Lipstick has been around for ages, as far back as 3,000 B.C. when women in ancient Mesopotamia tinted their lips with crushed precious jewels; as well as a combination of red clay, iron oxide (rust), henna, seaweed, iodine and a compound consisting of a halogen element with an alcohol sugar called bromine mannite. Some of these ingredients were highly toxic. Ancient Egyptian women applied a purple and red color squeezed from iodine and bromine. This lead to serious diseases and over time became known as “the kiss of death.” Cleopatra went as far as to color her lips with crushed ants and carmine in a base of beeswax. Imagine the stinging sensation that must have caused! Could this have been a prelude to the modern lip plump?

During the Elizabethan era, Queen Elizabeth I of England popularized the trend of bright blood red lips with very pale chalk-white face powder. Venetian Ceruse, a white powder obtained by using vinegar on lead, was one of the most popular lightening creams of the day. Painters painted with it and women used it to lighten their skin in order to create an artificially white complexion. Ceruse was easily absorbed through the skin, and therefore lead poisoning quickly became an undesirable repercussion. In fact, prolonged use of ceruse may have lead to the death of Queen Elizabeth I. Despite its popularity and horrifying side effects such as muscle paralysis and a deteriorating mental condition, ceruse remained popular for many years until it was finally classified as a poison in 1634. Who knew that several hundred years later, we would find ourselves in a similar position?

Only this time it is concerning the amount lead in lipstick.

What is Lead?

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Services, lead is a highly toxic metal. Its low cost and abundance has permitted lead to be used in paint, batteries, ceramics, and, drum roll please . . . cosmetics. Extreme lead exposure can cause a variety of neurological disorders and serious health problems such as lack of muscular coordination, memory and concentration problems, convulsions and high blood pressure, just to name a few.

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry claims that lead can damage and/or affect almost every organ and system in the body. Lead poisoning can occur as a result of extreme exposure to high concentrations of lead. It can also occur after months or years of accumulative exposure to small amounts of the substance. In other words, exposure to slight amounts of lead can cause permanent damage. Today in the United States, the most common sources of lead exposure are found in drinking water, lead-based paint in older homes, contaminated soil and even household dust.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Study of Lead in Lipstick

A recent federal analysis, performed by the FDA, revealed that 400 shades of popular lipstick tested positive for trace amounts of lead. An expanded survey will be published in the May/June 2012 issue of the Journal of Cosmetic Science.

What’s disturbing is that it has been discovered that the amount of lead in lipstick is more prevalent and widespread than previously reported. When lipstick is applied several times a day, every day, lead could build up in the body’s system and lead to significant exposure levels. Not to mention how much lead-containing lipstick is unintentionally ingested on a daily basis.

Top 10 Lead-Containing Lipstick Offenders

  1. Maybelline Color Sensational, Pink Petal (7.9 ppm)
  2. L'Oreal Colour Riche, Volcanic, (7.0 ppm)
  3. NARS Semi-Matte, Red Lizard (4.93 ppm)
  4. Cover Girl Queen Collection, Ruby Remix, (4.92 ppm)
  5. Nars Semi-Matte, Funny Face (4.89 ppm)
  6. L'Oreal Colour Riche, Tickled Pink (4.45 ppm)
  7. L'Oreal Intensely Moisturizing Lipcolor, Heroic (4.41 ppm)
  8. Cover Girl Continuous Color, Warm Brick (4.28 ppm)
  9. Maybelline Color Sensational, Mauve Me (4.23 ppm)
  10. Stargazer Lipstick, #103 (4.12 ppm)


To see the full FDA report to determine if your favorite lipstick contains lead, click here:

Lead is a Contaminant NOT Listed on Lipstick Ingredient Labels

As indicated in the list above, the FDA found the highest levels of lead in lipsticks made by L'Oreal (L'Oreal and Maybelline brands), Procter & Gamble (Cover Girl brand), and Revlon. L’Oreal is the world’s largest cosmetics maker and sells five of the nine lipstick brands with the highest amounts of lead. Yet, L'Oreal claims they maintain the highest levels of manufacturing standards and their products comply with FDA and European safety regulations.

Surprisingly, the least-contaminated brand is the inexpensive Wet & Wild Mega Mixers Lip Balm. It contains less than 275 times the amount of lead than the highest lead offender, Maybelline Color Sensation by L’Oreal USA . . . Thus indicating that spending more money doesn’t necessarily guarantee a better quality product. Any consumer can research cosmetic ingredients online.

Cause for Alarm?

The FDA thinks not. "The FDA did not find high levels of lead in lipstick," FDA spokeswoman Tamara Ward said. "We developed and tested a method for measuring lead in lipstick and did not find levels that would raise health concerns."

Hmmm. There are traces of lead in lipsticks albeit small. Granted, lipstick was developed as a product intended for topical use with limited absorption and possible ingestion of small quantities. Remember though, as was stated above, even small quantities can cause harm over an extended period of time. 


According to a statement from the Personal Care Products Council, a trade group that represents the cosmetic industry, “Lead is never used as an intentionally added ingredient in or as an additive to lipstick.  However, lead is ubiquitous and 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, such as lipstick, just as it is found in many thousands of other products.”  There is some speculation, though, that lead is intentionally added to lipstick to make the colors more vibrant.

Children’s products cannot contain more than 100 parts per million (ppm) of lead, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. However, an advisory committee to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently stated there is no safe level of lead for children.

This must give you pause . . . Lead is an ingredient so toxic that it is not allowed in paint or gasoline and yet small amounts of lead are permitted in lipstick, which is applied directly to the skin. Not only that, but given this information, many doctors claim that lipstick is an important cosmetic product to avoid since it can easily be ingested with application close to the mucosal lining of the mouth.

What’s Next?

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition to protect the health of consumers by striving to eliminate dangerous chemicals from cosmetics, is feverishly pressuring the FDA to set a maximum limit of lead in lipstick. They are also calling on the cosmetic industry to reformulate their products and remove lead from lipstick altogether. The FDA has not set limits for lead in cosmetics, but they have set specifications for lead in color additives used in cosmetics based on estimated consumer usage. They are currently “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.”

However, if this is cause for alarm for you, perhaps it’s time to support an outright ban on lead in lipsticks. Or, choose a lipstick that is non-toxic so when you “pucker up” you can be absolutely certain that your kiss is lead-free.



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