Lead in Your Lipstick? Here’s Why

While it might not hurt you, it does present a risk to an unborn baby. (borosjuli, Flickr)
Most lipsticks and lip glosses contain lead. While it might not hurt you, it does present a risk to an unborn baby. (borosjuli, Flickr)

Society has moved away from leaded gas and lead for toys and household paints, but you’re still getting exposed to the toxic metal. Cosmetics are a source of lead, whether they are made of all-natural ingredients or not. Lead in your lipstick may be the worst because you ingest some of the product. How bad is the contamination? Here’s a look at the latest scientific findings and an assessment of your health risk.

Why Is There Lead in Lipstick?

Once upon a time, manufacturers intentionally added lead acetate to lipstick and other products. This chemical had the common name “sugar of lead” because it tasted sweet. Lead acetate has been mostly phased out, although it still occurs in some lipsticks (mostly red) and hair dyes. Even if it’s not an ingredient, it’s extremely hard to remove all lead from cosmetics because natural mineral pigments contain lead compounds. So, even if you’re using an all-natural lipstick, if you read a mineral name like mica (for sparkle) or iron oxide (for red and brown colors), there’s a good chance lead is tagging along. Lead also stabilizes polymers, so it can sneak in with organic molecules, too.

Assess Your Actual Risk from Lead in Lipstick

An earlier study had found lipsticks in the U.S. contained an average of 1 mg/kg of lead. While there is no truly safe amount of lead, this concentration posed little to no health risk. However, a new study conducted by Hong-Bo Li and Lena Q. Ma their team at Nanjing University has found much higher lead levels, ranging from 0.2 to 10185 mg/kg. The average value of lead concentration in the 75 lipsticks and 18 lip glosses they tested was 497 mg/kg.

Further, using mice, the scientists were able to measure the absorption of lead from lipstick into the bloodsteam. They found 23-95% of the lead was absorbed after ingestion. While people don’t actively eat lipstick, some amount is certainly ingested.

Based on the results, the researchers concluded applying lipstick (even heavily contaminated with lead) twice a day would lead to a daily lead intake below the maximum limit set by the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. However, lipstick is not the only source of a person’s daily lead exposure. Plus, heavy use (8 or more applications daily) exceeds the limit.

Possibly the most important conclusion is that even average lipstick application causes enough lead accumulation to harm a developing fetus.

How to Protect Yourself from Lead in Lipstick

How can you minimize your exposure to lead? Here are some steps to take:

  • Choose the best product you can afford. Li and Ma found cheaper products ($5 or less) tended to contain more lead.
  • Limit the number of times you reapply the product. If you’re putting on lipstick more than twice a day, consider switching to one that lasts longer.
  • Read the ingredients. Obviously, if lead is anywhere on the label, steer clear. Consider natural formulations that use plant-based pigments.

Read the research paper at Environ. Sci. Technol. 2016, DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.6b01425.