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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.

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| July 10th, 2012

So how much lead exactly is in lipstick?

In the F.D.A.’s recent survey of 400 lipsticks, it found the highest lead content to be 7.21 ppm, about 36 percent of the allowable 20 ppm. So to break it down, if a five-gram tube of lipstick has a lead count of seven parts per million, it actually contains 0.000036 grams of lead. That’s roughly the weight of a single grain of table salt!

Experts say one milligram of lead is enough to make a child sick. That means a child would need to eat 28 tubes of lipstick to find himself exposed to one milligram of lead. In a lipstick with 2 ppm of lead, he’d need to snack on least 100 tubes. 

But that assumes that the lead is released in your stomach, which may not happen, because lead particles in lipstick are locked up in other compounds. To test lead levels in lipstick, the F.D.A. heats the lipstick to nearly 400° F then mixes it with boric acid. So keep in mind that stomach acids alone may not be enough to extract lead from lipstick.

This extensive process immediately reveals the absurdity of the so-called “gold ring test” which posits that one can determine if a type of lipstick contains lead simply by rubbing it with a gold ring. The rumor goes that if by rubbing a lipstick bullet with a gold ring produces black streaks, you’ve found lead. However, if you conduct a similar test rubbing lipstick across a clean paper surface using various metals, including gold, pewter, copper and silver, all of them will produce gray streaks. The streaks are actually the residue of the metals themselves, made more prominent by the color of the lipstick.

COLUMN: How to Shop for Lip Balms

How much of that lead gets into my body?

On average, Americans have around 70 micrograms of lead in their blood stream that’s absorbed from other sources in that person’s environment. If a person is not exposed to a single, significant source of lead (such as working in a manufacturing facility that uses lead), exposure to small doses of lead may come either from the water, soil, air or from natural or man made sources.

Lead can be absorbed through the skin. It can also be ingested orally. Children absorb 30-50 percent of orally-ingested, water-soluble lead, while adults absorb more in the neighborhood of 10 percent. Pregnant and nursing women can pass lead to their babies through blood and milk. And what’s not absorbed is excreted from the body as waste.

Nutrition also influences how the body processes lead. If, due to poor nutrition, your body has a deficit of calcium or iron (two elements it needs to operate), it can absorb more lead into the bloodstream.

Some vocal opponents of the F.D.A.’s allowable limit on lead argue that lipstick is ingested when worn and should be held to the same legal limits imposed on candy. The F.D.A. allows 0.1 ppm of lead in candy—200 times less than what is allowed in lipstick. But when comparing lipstick to candy, the question is not whether or not women ingest lipstick, but how much?

If someone ate one, 25-gram serving of candy once a week, they would consume 1300 grams of candy in a year. But even if a woman used up an entire tube of lipstick every six months, and ingested every bit of lipstick from the tube, she would only ingest about 10 grams of lipstick per year—130 times less than the candy consumed. In other words, the F.D.A. limit for lead in cosmetic pigments is 200 times higher than it is for candy, but a person is more likely to ingest 100 times more candy than lipstick each year. (And that’s assuming that you basically eat your lipstick.)

MORE: Restaurant Meals for Luscious Lips

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