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The Truth About Lead And Lipstick

Yes, this red-hot topic is back in the news again after the FDA cited 400 products (from 32 different companies) for containing trace amounts of lead. But does that mean you should abandon your favorite lipstick? We separate fact from fiction.

July 10th, 2012

Tags: Lips, Makeup
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Why does lead appear in lipstick in the first place?

Lead is a scary word. It’s the kind of strong substance you want included in construction materials. But in cosmetics or paint? Not so much. Lead poisoning can have serious health implications for adults and especially for children.

But this element isn’t added to our lipsticks, it finds its way in by accident—through the cosmetic pigments. Many pigments used to produce yellows, reds, oranges and browns are made from synthetic iron oxides (compounds that include iron and oxygen). Theoretically you could pull iron oxides straight out of the ground, but that would mean dragging along additional, unwanted materials. But even synthetic iron oxides are often derived from natural sources, so unintended ingredients, like lead, can and do appear in pigments.

MORE: Beauty's Controversial Cosmetics

The F.D.A. refers to lead as an “impurity,” but don’t let the name fool you. Chromium is an impurity that can appear in gemstones, but without it we wouldn’t have the rich green of emeralds or the brilliant red of rubies. Similarly, lead can contribute to the actual colors of the cosmetic pigments. To imitate such gorgeous shades, some pigment producers may, in fact, use ingredients that contain lead compounds. But the lead is then removed before the pigments are sold to cosmetic companies.

Cosmetic companies—the name brands you see on your products—don’t produce those pigments. They’re purchased from independent pigment producers. Nor are cosmetic companies responsible for making sure that those pigments fall below the F.D.A.’s maximum allowable lead content—no more than 20 parts per million.

Before these pigments are sold to cosmetic companies they undergo an intense washing process intended to remove regulated contaminants such as lead, arsenic and copper, explains Nick Morante, who had worked as a color specialist for The Estée Lauder Company for 30 years before starting Nick Morante Cosmetic Consultants in Holbrook, New Jersey.

“The wash process is designed to remove everything you don’t want there,” said Morante. “But the government does allow 10 parts per million of lead—and 3 ppm of arsenic and 3 ppm of mercury—as a safety net.”

In other words, the allowable parts per million exist because removing such small amounts of lead can be extremely difficult. Morante says most companies design their wash process to remove all lead—not simply to meet the minimum requirement. 

Beyond pigments, there is no reason for a cosmetic company to add lead or lead compounds to their products. But a concerned public may be quick to call foul and lay blame. The fact that the government legislation sets an allowable amount leaves many wondering if it just gives cosmetic companies a pass to add lead. “Baloney,” says Morante. “But some people, unfortunately, think that’s what is happening.”

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