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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.

(page 3 of 3)
July 10th, 2012

Tags: Lips, Makeup

Why should I be worried about lead?

Lead, it’s true, is a highly toxic substance. This neurotoxin can damage the nervous system and affect the cardiovascular system, potentially resulting in heart attack and high blood pressure. It can also lead to kidney problems, cognitive dysfunction and adverse reproductive outcomes. 

The biggest cause of elevated blood lead levels comes from occupational sources, which  make up 95 percent of elevated lead exposure cases. 

After that, key sources include using firearms and being shot (as if catching a bullet isn’t hazardous enough, the ammunition itself deposits significant amounts of lead into the blood stream). There are also high risks from houses build before 1978 that are contaminated with lead paint and lead dust. Imported toys containing lead paint also continue to appear on toy shelves—although imported toys sold by American toy brands are monitored closely. It also appears in drinking water from various sources including lead water pipes. The E.P.A. maintains a zero-lead drinking water policy, but water contamination still occurs.

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Should the F.D.A. ban all levels of lead in lipstick?

There is a mounting body of evidence showing that low doses of lead previously deemed safe, can actually have negative health effects, especially in children. Studies have yet to find whether there is a “safe” level of lead that has no effect on the body. So those same studies cannot say for sure if trace amounts, like those found in lipstick, are harmful.

Most public health officials are now taking a zero-tolerance approach to lead for children. Mark Mitchell, the chairperson of the Environmental Task force for the National Medical Association, says, “The question is: Is the amount of lead in lipstick going to be detrimental to your health? And the answer is we don’t know.” 

But in terms of removing lead from our environment, Mitchell also agrees that some sources of lead are more dangerous than others.

“I don’t think lipstick is a major source of lead. And I do believe that people should be concerned about removing lead from as many sources as possible, but the sources with the larger amounts of lead should be looked at first,” he said, referring to contaminated homes, drinking supplies and jobs that involve lead exposure.

Bruce Lanphear, a professor of health science at Simon Fraser University has studied the impact of lead exposure in children and takes a more absolute point of view, believing that all unnecessary sources of lead should be removed.

“We live in a lead-laden world,” says Lanphear. “Even the low-level exposures matter.”

MORE: Toxic Ingredient Cheat Sheet

Lanphear also points out that treating lead related health issues imposes a financial burden on society.  He’d like to see a reduction in lead sources across the board, even in sources like lipstick, and fervently believes that any exposure amongst children is harmful.

But Lanphear says removing low lead sources should compliment, not overshadow, its removal from more significant sources, such as homes and water supplies. Those sources contribute to the over 250,000 children in the US with dangerous levels of lead in their blood.

Unfortunately, by focusing on lead in lipstick it overlooks the larger issues.

Consumers have a right to demand the removal of lead from lipstick, but efforts to this end should not ignore the many low-income families who cannot afford to remove lead paint from their homes safely, or lead pipes that supply their drinking water. Abandoned lead-contaminated houses pose a bigger threat to children playing nearby than lipstick does. Uniting against lead in lipstick is a worthy cause, but demanding stricter limits is only one small step toward kissing the bigger lead problem goodbye. 

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