Unsafe Lipstick and Lip Balms
Many years ago, after applying Chapstick, my lower lip began to swell as if helium had been pumped into it. I was rushed to the hospital where I discovered that I had an allergy to the product. The experience alerted me to the fact that if any cosmetic goes on your lips, it pays to check out what's in it.
Researchers have known for a long time that lip products may contain potentially hazardous materials. A study in 2011 by the FDA found lead in 400 types of lipstick.1 The Agency wasn't too concerned with those results, and in fact issued a statement concluding: "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."
Not everyone was satisfied with the FDA's blasé attitude, and so, researchers at the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley continued to investigate liptisck ingredients. Just this month, the team issued a report indicating that they found not only lead, but also cadmium, chromium, aluminum, titanium, and four other not-so-nice metals in the 32 varieties of popular lipsticks and lip glosses tested.2 They also found that these metals were present in worrisome amounts.
"Just finding these metals isn't the issue. It's the levels that matter," says study co-author S. Katharine Hammond. "Some of the toxic metals are occurring at levels that could possibly have an effect in the long term."
Like most cosmetics, lipstick ultimately gets absorbed into the system through the skin, but as mentioned above, unlike other cosmetics, it also gets ingested. If you smack your lips, sip a latte, or eat a meal, the metals and lead in lipstick is bound to find its way down the chute.
According to the researchers, the average lipstick wearer applies the stuff 2.3 times a day, and that leads to ingesting an average of 24 milligrams daily. The more enthusiastic users reapply up to 14 times daily and end up swallowing an average of 83 milligrams of lipstick--which obviously means also swallowing all the heavy metals in the formula. (For perspective, a cup of light green tea contains about 24 milligrams of caffeine, and dark espresso has up to 75 milligrams.) The acting Attorney General of California back in 2008, Edward G. Weil, presented a detailed analysis of exactly how much lead in lipstick is likely to make its way into the body the wearer.3
While it's disturbing to think you might be swallowing small amounts of lead with every gulp, some of the other heavy metals in lipstick ingredients actually pose a greater threat. Chromium, for instance, is a known carcinogen that has been linked to stomach tumors and lung cancer--and one-third of the lip products contained levels of chromium in excess of the FDA's safety standards, assuming moderate use. With heavy use, two-thirds of the products yield chromium in excess of safety standards. In most of the tested products, the levels of cadmium and manganese also were elevated beyond the safety zone. And that assumes the so-called safety zone really is safe. Some say getting a daily cocktail of these metals in any amounts is health-threatening.
Consistent with the earlier FDA findings, the lead content was low in most of the products tested, to the point that some researchers didn't find those results of much concern for adults. On the other hand, half the products contained lead in amounts exceeding the cap on lead levels allowed in candy.4 The fact that lead was present at all raised concerns about children playing with lipstick, since kids are far more sensitive to the effects of lead. Exposure can result in cognitive deficits, decreased bone and muscle growth, nervous system damage, speech problems, seizures, and kidney problems.
Even at the low, supposedly non-threatening levels identified as far as adult use goes, the lead content in lipstick concerned some experts, like Dr. Mark Mitchell of the National Medical Association. "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," he wrote. Plus, some brands contain far more lead than others. The earlier study found that the product with the highest lead content exceeded by 275 times the amount found in the lipstick with the least lead. (Maybelline and L'Oreal had the worst track record as far as lead goes, in case you're still intent on wearing a popular brand of lipstick.)
While the experts quibble about what maximum safe exposure is, consider that in Europe, lead, cadmium and chromium are banned from cosmetic formulations.5 Even so, the industry in the U.S. supports its products, heavy metals and all.
"The finding of trace levels of metals in lip products is not unexpected given their natural presence in air, soil and water," said a statement from the Personal Care Products Council. "Trace amounts of metals in lip products need to be put into context. Food is a primary source for many of these naturally present metals, and exposure from lip products is minimal in comparison."
That's kind of like telling someone to drop dead and then defending your rudeness by saying that the person is going to die eventually anyway.
The bottom line is that you would do well to consult the Environmental Working Group's Cosmetics Database6 before smearing your lips with anything. We didn't even discuss the other questionable ingredients in lip products (including lip balms) beyond heavy metals, but suffice it to say that a look at the Database may convince you that your lips are just fine unadorned. And for anyone who feels that they may have applied commercial lipstick one too many times, there's always the option of doing a heavy metal detox.
- 1. Jaslow, Ryan. "Lead found in 400 types of lipstick: which has most?" 15 February 2012. CBS. 2 May 2013. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504763_162-57377840-10391704/lead-found-in-400-types-of-lipstick-which-has-most
- 2. Koch, Wendy. "Lipstick study opens up concerns about carcinogen." 2 May 2013. USA Today. 3 May 2013. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/05/02/toxic-chemicals-lipstick/2125325
- 3. Edward G. Weil. "Proposition 65 Claims Concerning Lead in Lipstick." Letter dated 3 Mar 2008. State of California Department of Justice. (Accessed 3 May 2013.) http://ag.ca.gov/prop65/pdfs/Lipstick_Letter-a.pdf
- 4. Jaslow, Ryan. "Toxic metals and cancer risks found in lipstick, lip glosses." 2 May 2013. CBS News. 4 May 2013. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-204_162-57582555/toxic-metals-and-cancer-risks-found-in-lipsticks-lip-glosses
- 5. Imus, Deirdre. "Why you may want to break up with your make-up: it may be toxic." 2 May 2013. Fox News. 4 May 2013. http://www.foxnews.com/health/2013/05/02/break-up-with-your-toxic-make-up
- 6. http://www.ewg.org/skindeep