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Soapbox :: Is There More Lead In My Lipstick, Water or Salad Dressing? Plus 8 Common Misconceptions About Lead In Lipstick

Bandwagons are easy to hop onto.  Sometimes they travel so fast we make split-second, knee-jerk reactions about whether or not to jump on.  No time to pause and ponder.  It's moving with fury and are you on or offIn or outWith or against?  I've been on my fair share of rides.  I still find myself getting caught up at times but I  try to catch myself, stop and think.  Rather than getting sucked into a vortex with fear-based momentum I try to step back, let things marinate and search for truth.  It doesn't always happen but I try to set emotion aside and reach for facts.  I don't always get it right, but I aim to.  

Before we jump in, did you know lead can be found in all, but not limited to, these items below? 

+ Air
+ Dust
+ Tap water
+ Bottled water
+ Garden soil
+ Cooking spices
+ Balsamic vinegar
+ Strawberries
+ Chocolate
+ Coffee
+ Candy
+ Drinking water faucets
+ Imported pottery 

There's no doubt it makes sense for us to reduce our exposure to harmful, burdensome heavy metals and lead is nothing to scoff at; we know it can wreak havoc on neurological and reproductive development, especially in children.  Since lead can be found in so many things it's wise to know which sources are exposing us on a grander scale so we can focus on big offenders, especially ones that aren't optional as lipstick is.  This is why the Environmental Protection Agency put together a Lead Poisoning Checklist.  Further, back in 2007, The Center For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published recomendations and a report concerning lead exposure in children specific to blood lead levels, which can be found here

In the matter of Lead in Lipstick it makes sense for us to question what we see and hear instead of buying into whatever the media throws our way.  After all, how can we make informed decisions without the whole truth?  After more than a month of my own research with help from experts including an experienced chemist, cosmetic formulator and several lipstick manufacturers, what I discovered is that most of the information currently out there appears to be a regurgitation of false or severely skewed information.  My goal is to help clear muddy waters rather than contribute to the murkiness.

8 Most Common Misconceptions About Lead In Lipstick 

Misconception #1: 

Lead Is An Ingredient Added To Lipstick

Lead is not added to lipstick but is found in the mineral color pigments used to give cosmetics their color.  There are varying levels of purity when it comes to mineral pigments thus the wide result range of lead levels detected according to recent FDA tests results.  Very minimal trace amounts of heavy metal are innate in mineral pigments which is why every single one tested by the lab hired by the FDA found small amounts of lead.

Misconception #2: 

Lead Levels Were Higher In The 2011 FDA Report Than They Were In The 2009 Report

"In the case of lead in lipsticks, the jump from a maximum of 3.06 ppm to 7.19 ppm is disconcerting; most consumers would prefer to see those numbers decreasing as opposed to more than doubling in three years." - Forbes (link)

What I wish Amy Westervelt, the Forbes journalist who wrote the statement above, would have considered is that when you test more widgets of anything (2000% more in this case), you are going to obtain a broader spectrum of results - it doesn't necessarily mean the levels have gone up.  The highest amount of lead found in 2009 was 3.06 parts per million and the highest amount found in 2011 was 7.19 parts per million, but there were only 20 lipsticks tested in 2009 and 400 tested in 2011.  Comparing results from two tests that don't contain the same quantity of test subjects is not a legitimate assessment.  Had the FDA tested 400 lipsticks for both tests and the lead levels were higher in the recent results, we could then do a fair comparison and determine whether or not the lead levels have increased since the last test.  But despite all that, even with the vast difference in quantity tested, the lead level averages were pretty much the same as they were in 2009 and 2011 as the difference between 1.07 and 1.11 parts per million is inconsequential.  

"The expanded survey found that the average lead concentration in the 400 lipsticks tested was 1.11 ppm, very close to the average of 1.07 ppm obtained in our initial survey. The results ranged from the detection limit of 0.026 ppm to the highest value of 7.19 ppm." {Source: FDA}

When we read things like this from seemingly reputable sources such as Forbes or hear it on NBC Nightly News, I totally understand how the majority of consumers are freaked out about lead in lipstick.  Even my husband's 91 year old grandma heard Brian Williams talk about it on the news and called to ask me about it.

Misconception #3: 

Natural Lipsticks Don't Have Lead Because They Aren't On The FDA List of Lipsticks Found With Lead or Natural Lipsticks Don't Have Lead Because They Are Natural

How many articles have we seen lately titled something like "Avoid Lead In Lipstick - Go Natural!"?  There are too many to count.  While I'm sure well-intentioned, this type of implication perpetuates confusion and falsehoods. The great majority of natural lipsticks contain mineral pigments which is how most regular and natural lipstick get their color.  Mineral pigments contain trace amounts of heavy metals including lead, arsenic and mercury.  Just because it's a natural lipstick doesn't mean there's no lead in it.  And just because it wasn't included in the FDA test doesn't mean it doesn't contain lead.  Natural lipsticks, except Burt's Bees, weren't tested by the FDA because the FDA chose lipsticks from companies whose parent company had the highest market shares. Since Burt's Bees is owned by Clorox it was included in the FDA's test.  As far as I know (and I reached out to many retailers and manufacturers of natural lipstick), most, if not all natural lipstick has not been specifically tested for lead, post-manufacturing.  (Although I'm told Vapour Organic Beauty is in the process of testing).  No matter if it's a natural or regular lipstick, it is required, however, for color pigment suppliers to supply a Color Additive Regulatory Certificate to the manufacturer indicating that the color pigment falls within FDA regulations of 10 ppm or less of lead per pigment.  Here's an example of a MSDS for Titanium Dioxide indicating stated chemical analysis and another below taken from a Color Additive Certificate of an iron oxide (color pigment) used in a natural lipstick:

Misconception #4: 

Lead Is The Primary Ingredient Concern In Lipsticks 

It's important to understand just how small of an amount "parts per million" is.  To grossly oversimplify this:  it is an extremely minute amount, so much so that the lab the FDA hired to perform the lipstick testing had to use special instruments and methods to even detect lead because many fell below "detectable amounts"..  It would take over 1.5 Olympic swimming pools to hold 1 million gallons of lipstick.  The average amount of lead found in lipstick was .0001% (refer to top of Infographic below) which is equivalent to 1 gallon of lead in 1 million gallons of lipstick. One million gallons of lipstick equals approximately 91,428,571.43 tubes of lipstick.  So what about all the other ingredients in those swimming pools that make up the majority of lipstick ingredients?  It makes more sense to be more concerned about all the other ingredients regular lipstick is made of that is used in substantially larger quantities.  I'm not using natural lip products because they don't contain trace amounts of heavy metals, because I'm sure they do have some if they contain mineral pigments; but because I want to use a product made of as many natural ingredients as possible and I don't prefer to slather a large amount of synthetics on my lips.

Misconception #5: 

The Acceptable Level For Lead In Water Is Zero 

This is inaccurate though likely claimed because the difference between an allowable level and a goal is misunderstood. Two different things. It's the difference between reality and hope.  EPA (Environmental Protection Agency - U.S.) National Primary Drinking Water Regulations allows up to 15 ppb in tap water and the FDA allows up to 5 ppb in bottled water.  {Source}

Misconception #6:

FDA Made The Report Results Public To Inform Consumers To Be Concerned About The Amount Of Lead In Lipstick

Actually the exact opposite statement is true.  The FDA published the report to assure the public that they have completed testing (which was exhaustive, comprehensive and not an easy task - click here if you want to read all about how the FDA tested the lipsticks in '09) and determined the lead levels are still safe after the Campaign For Safe Cosmetics test in 2007, and the FDA tests in 2009 and 2010.  Whether or not you agree with or trust the FDA's assessment of what "safe" is, fact is - they did not publicize the results to warn but to reassure.

Misconception #7 

Women consume 4 pounds of lipstick in their lifetime.

Perhaps this is more of an improbability than a misconception but I tend to think it's a bit of both.  It all depends on  how much lipstick you use each year.  According to experienced Cosmetic Chemist and Formulator, Melissa Christenson, you'd have to use 100% of  9.33 entire tubes of lipstick per year in order to consume 4 pounds of lipstick in a lifetime.  I don't know any woman who uses that much. Do you? (Refer to Infographic below for calculations).

Misconception #8: 

It's As Easy As Just "Get The Lead Out"

If you watched the The Story of Cosmetics by Annie Leonard in 2010 or have seen the Campaign For Safe Cosmetic's recent Kiss Lead Goodbye campaign, it's not difficult to see how it would be very easy for any consumer to believe the solution is as easy as cosmetic companies just ceasing their use of lead in lipstick. When we hear things like "let's not debate how much lead should be in lipstick, just get the toxic chemicals out of our products!" (Source), the answer seems so simple.  While that statement sounds great it doesn't factor in reality.  It's an oversimplified, albeit naive, statement to a complex issue since lead isn't an ingredient being dumped into vats of lipstick (which is also why lead is not on lipstick ingredient lists).  If cosmetic companies stop using iron oxides in cosmetics, which is doubtful will ever happen (at least not anytime soon), and switch to say fruit pigments to color cosmetics (as a couple others have done) then we're going to still contend with lead that can show up in fruits or vegetables, either from the soil it's grown in or the lead that lands on it from environmental dust.

Truth is, lead is in so many things that if we are going to strive to just "get it out" we must realize it is going to be much like going down the proverbial rabbit hole.  Before any person or organization rallies to get the lead out a few other questions should be asked first:

1). How did the lead get in?

2). Why do some have more lead than others? 

3). What exactly is the risk factor compared to other things with lead that we consume on a daily basis? 

What makers of natural lipstick have to say about this issue:

From Burt's Bees (whose Lip Shimmers were in the 2011 FDA Report):

"The main challenge is that lead is inherent in the earth and basically everything on the planet contains some level,"...."Ingredients, especially colorants, are mined minerals and come from the earth."  -Celeste Lutrario, VP of Global Research & Development, Burt's Bees {Source}

From RMS Beauty

"1.  All minerals and pigments are going to contain trace amounts of lead – it’s basically impossible to not have it per how they are derived.

2.  All pigments sold in the U.S. are tested and they must meet FDA’s standards of 10ppm or less before pigment companies can sell them to manufacturers.  EU’s standards are actually 20ppm.   The FDA also tests for arsenic and mercury.

3.  Our pigments come in at less than 1 ppm – we use the cleanest in the industry and they are also the most expensive which is why hardly no one else is using them. 
Drinking a coffee and breathing the air has more then a lifetime amount of lead you would get from lipstick."

From Alima Pure:  

"The FDA doesn't regulate much when it comes to cosmetics but is very fussy about contaminants in pigments. Every lot of iron oxides we (and every other cosmetic company) receive is thoroughly tested to insure that any potential contaminants falls within very stringently measured ppm (parts per million). Alima, and I expect many other cosmetics companies as well, use pigments that are also certified for use in the EU and Japan, which are still more stringently controlled than our FDA sanctioned pigments. Bottom line: there may be infinitesimal amounts of contaminants but they really are infinitesimal."  

I suppose that as with all things we must use good judgement and educate ourselves. We don't want to cave in to the EWG generated hysteria (and I do wonder how much of it is related to their need to make waves to raise donations, frankly) but we absolutely want to be safe and sensible. And we want our daughters to be safe. And I want my clients to be safe. No compromises and no grey areas, period. 

"EWG is doing some good work, but they are also fomenting unnecessary hysteria, in my humble opinion, in order to get attention." 

From ILIA Beauty:

"Adding color to cosmetics is a double edged sword. All natural dyes, that are mineral based will contain trace amounts of metals (all mineral based powders outside of dye as well should be noted here) - although more often no more than drinking a glass of tap water, since metals are naturally occurring and can be found everywhere. What should be noted is when the metal levels are higher than necessary and the FDA publishes reports on this. Synthetic colors are another story and we use minimal amounts of mild food grade synthetics when needed. If people are concerned about synthetic dyes they should stay away from reds and bright rich shades. Another color choice is Carmine, and that usually hits a cord with many, and its something we choose not to use. Fruit dyes, are more or less non-existent and usually will have synthetic dyes added at the supplier level.
In regards to color, ILIA wants to offer different options for different customers. Hence, several of our products are made with 100% mineral dye, while others will have minimal amounts of food grade color. There are some lipsticks out there that only use synthetic dyes and ingredients and may not contain any trace amounts of lead, yet, the toxicity levels found in the other ingredients will be far more harmful in the long run.

If anything I hope this brings awareness to what is happening with product and that people will respect these answers, and become more aware of their choices. It definitely isn't black and white, but by becoming aware, people can make a educated choice as opposed to one that is being sold to them by the media."

+ + + + + + + + + + + + 

Lead In Balsamic Vinegar

Are you aware that there can be lead in red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar? (Source)  If you're in California you may have spotted the mandatory Prop 65 warnings in the vinegar aisle at your grocery store...


I'm a huge fan of salads with balsamic vinegar dressing and I eat more salads than I wear lipstick.  Do you think I should start a campaign called "Get The Lead Out Of My Salad"?  If you do, who should I blame for the lead in my salad dressing: the earth's crust, the vinegar supplier or the salad dressing manufacturer? 

Check out Page 6, Section B of a letter from State of California Attorney General in 2008 which the following conclusion is proposed regarding lead in lipstick in relation to California's Proposition 65 after CSC tested lead in lipstick back in 2007:

"The above analysis indicates that lipstick with lead concentrations at the levels found in the CSC (Campaign For Safe Cosmetics) report could not plausibly be considered to trigger a duty to warn under Propisition 65.  Indeed, it appears that a reasonable claim that there is a duty to warn would not arise until concentrations reached 5 ppm lead." {link to letter here} 

Fast forward four years and three tests later and there are just two lipsticks (out of more than 420+ tested) that are over the Prop 65 lead limit of 5ppm.  And here's the deal: we absolutely absorb more of anything when we put it in our mouth than when we put something on the outside of our body.  There's really no disputing that.  I can already hear the rebuttal "but we do eat lipstick!".  Sure, but in much, much smaller amounts than if we munched on a tube of it like kids eat candy.  And believe me, I'm definitely putting 1-2 Tablespoons of balsamic vinegar salad dressing on my salad and it would probably take 1-2 whole tubes of lipstick to equal that.  By the time I use up an entire tube of lipstick I've probably already consumed hundreds of salads with balsamic vinegar and therefore much more lead.  And speaking of lead levels in candy, that's one of the things that's referenced when discussing this lead in lipstick issue since the FDA allows up to 0.1 ppm for candy.  It's a no-brainer for the FDA to substantially limit lead levels in anything they know kids will be consuming a lot of since their immune systems aren't full developed and heavy metals can stunt neurological development.  Most kids and adults I know eat tremendously more candy in one sitting than the size of an entire tube of lipstick. 

Lead In Bottled Water

I asked Melissa Christenson, Certified Chemist, Cosmetic Formulator and Founder, with an extensive and impressive background in the beauty biz to help me understand the reality of this topic more clearly.  Turns out she had worked on some lead in lipstick calculations a few years back and she gladly shared her information with me.  She updated her formulas per the recent FDA report and assumed the maximum amount of lead in lipstick found (7.19 ppm) instead of using the lowest amount found or averages, to err on the high side.  If she used the average lead amount found, obviously the lead consumption amounts would be substantially lower (for lipstick).  She poured over the assumptions, formulas and calculations over the course of several weeks and we both have been finetuning the Infographic for the last couple weeks to ensure clarity.  Neither of us went into this discovery process with bias or hidden agenda, just with facts.  The results speak for themselves:

It's difficult to argue with numbers.  

While I'm a big proponent of reducing hazardous ingredients in anything and eliminating them altogether, if possible, it's wise to understand that getting trace amount of heavy metal quantity down to zero in mineral color pigments is highly unlikely, if not completely impossible.  What appears to be more attainable is mindfully reducing our exposure where possible.  

Based on these calculations, it does not appear that lead in lipstick is one of the places that is going to expose us to lead the most, or even close to a substantial amount compared to other things we consume on a daily basis.  In case you're still worried after reading facts the good news is you have choices and you are hopefully more informed to make a decision you can feel better about than you were previously.  I'm in no way a fan of lead or a fan of the majority of lipsticks ranked in the FDA report - what I am a fan of is transparency, common sense and facts.  I 'm concerned about many ingredients used in conventional cosmetics but I'm also concerned that by consumers focusing on something that makes up only .0001% of the product and something that isn't more of a risk than drinking bottled water or putting balsamic dressing on our salad, that we are steering focus away from bigger issues. 

None of this information is meant to scare, it's meant to inform you of facts and the bigger picture.   Let's not be spoon-fed information without questioning it and let's not dismiss it, but rather search for truth in order to make decisions based on facts rather than fear.  

What do you think?

Images: Fig+Sage

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