A Toxic Kiss?

by egndukwe on September 26, 2012

Fall is here, and besides the fact that the Midwest seemed a bit too eager to transition, it’s by far my favorite season. I love the automatic incorporations of any and everything pumpkin related. The fact that I can eat soups without looking foolish, the layering and bundling, the color of the trees. With every new season comes a change in women’s fashion, accessories and makeup techniques. Realbeauty.com proclaimed bold lips to be one of the makeup trends for this fall, highlighting some popular colors from New York Fashion Week. However, due to recent research publicizing the presence of lead in lipstick, some women may be thinking twice before reaching into their purses to touch up their new fall colors.

Some people think of lead exposure and immediately relate it to lead poisoning. Studies have shown that lead poisoning can have significant health effects by disrupting the normal functioning of organs. Particularly important is the fact that high amounts of lead can also affect the nervous system, which is especially of concern in children where elevated lead levels have been linked to the development of learning disabilities.

So with that in mind, can using a shade of tangerine lipstick (which Allure.com has deemed a must have color for Fall 2012) result in some of these harsh side effects? Judge rules: no. In 2010, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tested the lead concentration of 400 lipsticks sold in the US. Published in 2011, the results found that on average, lipstick contained a lead concentration of 1.11 parts per million (ppm), with the highest value reaching 7.19 ppm. The report went on to specify that although the FDA does not officially regulate the amount of lead in cosmetics, they do regulate the concentration of lead in the color additives used in cosmetic production. The maximum lead concentration allowed for color additives is around 20ppm. To put this in perspective, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 established the maximum accepted lead concentration for children’s toys to be 100ppm.

As a result of their findings, the FDA maintains the position that,

Lipstick, as a product intended for topical use with limited absorption, is ingested only in very small quantities. We do not consider the lead levels we found in the lipstick to be a safety concern.

However, despite the low lead concentrations found in lipstick, some maintain the argument that any lead in lipstick is too much lead. My view? Everything in moderation. Personally, I don’t wear a lot of lipstick (I don’t like it getting in the way of my soup consumption). But knowing that lipstick does contain trace amounts of lead, I might consider other ways to incorporate the “it” colors for this fall into my wardrobe. Starting with scarves


Image obtained from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

White, LD; Cory-Slechta, DA; Gilbert, ME; Tiffany-Castiglioni, E; Zawia, NH; Virgolini, M; Rossi-George, A; Lasley, SM et al. (2007). “New and evolving concepts in the neurotoxicology of lead”. Toxicology and applied pharmacology 225 (1): 1–27.

Meyer, PA; McGeehin, MA; Falk, H (2003). “A global approach to childhood lead poisoning prevention”. International journal of hygiene and environmental health206 (4–5): 363–9.

Margaret Freaney September 26, 2012 at 10:27 am

This was a great post idea. I know that it is hard to know what cosmetics might be good for you or not. I usually stay away from all of them myself. One question/ further research idea: this brings to mind that maybe there could be a link between cosmetics dementia, or other elderly kind of like when mercury was used in felt. Ie “the Mad Hatter”. Are there studies that show what long term exposure to low levels of lead might do? On another note I love the link to the tested 400 lipsticks. It would be great to see a link to just the table so the consumer can pick the lipsticks with the least amount of lead. Great Post! I will be excited to see your next one.


egndukwe September 26, 2012 at 4:07 pm


Thanks for the feedback! I’ll definitely keep your linking suggestion in mind for my next post. A quick search of long term low lead level exposure generated some pretty interesting information, including this study http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/newscience/2012/03/2012-0406-low-bone-lead-womens-anxiety which suggests that it could result in anxiety and depression in older women. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that it could be linked to more severe conditions as well.

Margaret Freaney September 26, 2012 at 5:05 pm

Depression and anxiety seem to be a pretty big condition to me. Thank you for the link. This is a great topic and I am glad you looked into long tern effects for me. Again great post! Even better, great follow through, looking for more articles. Thanks.


Quintus September 26, 2012 at 2:26 pm

I enjoyed this post, well written and clear with good back-up from the literature.
The lipstick is applied topically, I wonder how much of the various components are adsorbed through the skin, rather than being ingested.
Any idea, which was not discussed in the post, what form does the lead take, is it inorganic or organic?
I’m not sure where lead goes in the body, the bone marrow, blood cells? But I seem to remember it has a half life of around 30 days in humans?
It may have been useful to include this information, if it is available.

egndukwe September 26, 2012 at 6:36 pm


Thank you for your comments, I’m glad you enjoyed the article! I wondered about the absorption as well and felt that the FDA’s assertion that it has “limited absorption” was a bit cryptic.

Lead exists in both organic and inorganic forms with its inorganic forms being considered a carcinogen. From a quick search it seems that lead both circulates in the blood and is also stored in the body and is primarily measured through blood lead levels. See http://www.cancerwa.asn.au/resources/cancermyths/lipstick-cancer-myth for more information.

All great questions that I’ll be sure to consider for my next post!

Trinity September 26, 2012 at 2:27 pm


Have you ever heard of Lush products? They are all natural and don’t have any lead in their lipstick. I feel like that would be a wonderful solution to this terrifying problem.
Thank you for the wonderful article.


Margaret Freaney September 26, 2012 at 3:23 pm

I have tried lush products! They are great. I love their bath soaps. I have not tried any of their cosmetics, but I am looking at what they have next.


Kyasha September 26, 2012 at 3:39 pm


So informative! You’re making me nervous about the berry lipstick I’ve been rocking for the last week. I’ll hafta cross my fingers and hope that MAC has low lead levels.

Great piece!

egndukwe September 26, 2012 at 6:37 pm

Glad you enjoyed it! It’s definitely something to consider…but on the other hand, that shade looks great on you :)

Quintus September 26, 2012 at 3:42 pm

@Trinity. Every time I go into a Lush shop I am overwhelmed by the pungent aromas and have to leave after a few minutes. I wonder just how good breathing in this violent mixture is for your health. Don’t forget that their products contain compounds from natural sources. Note that compounds from natural sources can be amongst the most toxic known to man, e.g. tetrodotoxin, from the fugu fish.

Jennifer September 26, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Great & interesting post! Considering how much our society/culture expects us humans (especially female humans) to alter our appearances to better fit manufactured and irrational beauty ideals, i think it’s really important that we talk about the ramifications (and cost) of these actions.

When it comes to discussing topics like this that reference parts per million exposures, I think it’s really helpful to give a brief explanation of what a ppm actually is. Depending on the audience, it could be one sentence (“in 1 kilogram of lipstick, there would be 1.11-7.19 milligrams lead, so in the average tube of lipstick, there may be x to y milligrams of lead”), or include a comparison to something like a child’s toy (which probably weighs a lot more than a tube of lipstick but has a different surface area, and isn’t designed to be consumed until it’s empty). The other problem I have with discussions of ppm is that it’s so very relative: a person who uses a high-lead-content lipstick a few times a year on special occasions is going to consume far less lead overall than a person who uses a low-lead-content lipstick every day with frequent reapplications.

I’ve got celiac disease, so I must avoid gluten at all costs, and it turns out I’m extremely sensitive to gluten. There’s no official regulations in the US right now, but the general rule of thumb by reputable manufacturers is a 20ppm cutoff to call something “gluten-free.” Popular brands of GF bread are under 20ppm but that doesn’t help folks determine how much bread they can safely consume in a day, because it doesn’t factor in the *cumulative* exposure to a number of products with varying (but “acceptable”) concentrations (including cosmetics!).

The cumulative exposure thing bothers me when it comes to kids’ toys too. One child’s toy with a high but acceptable lead content that doesn’t get gnawed on much isn’t the end of the world. But for parents who can only afford lower-quality products or may not be aware of the lead content (which is often the case since it’s not very transparent), and for the kids who chew on EVERYTHING, their toys might be within the regulations, but might still be making them ill. Same goes for water with toxin concentrations… people who drink mostly soda/juice might not feel the effects of toxic water at home compared to someone with a borderline unsafe well who drinks water all day long.

I ramble, I know. Great post! :)

egndukwe September 26, 2012 at 6:50 pm


Thank you for your comments! All extremely valid points and cumulative exposure was something I thought a lot about while writing this post. I started to include a little about the dose-response relationship but wanted to avoid overwhelming the reader. But I do think that’s such a critical issue, especially in the examples you mentioned.

And I wholeheartedly agree with you on the difficulty with units of measurement. I found it interesting that the information in the FDA reports were in ppm but the measurements of safe to hazardous blood lead levels were in ug/dl, which I think would frustrate a lot of people trying to get a handle on their level of exposure.

Thanks again for the feedback, I’ll definitely keep it in mind next week :)

Paula Johnson, PhD, MPH September 26, 2012 at 7:37 pm

Wait a minute. Isn’t there no “safe” level of lead exposure?

Very interesting topic, and nice writing. I would have liked seeing this tied into the current regulatory events, i.e. Safe Cosmetic Act of 2011, however.

By the way, for consumers there is a lot of information about contaminants in cosmetics, including specific companies, via safecosmetics.org

Candace September 27, 2012 at 1:59 am

Interesting topic.
My only comment is that I would like to see peer reviewed studies that support or refute the “judge’s rule.” Studies on lead exposure are numerous and health effects at low levels have been confirmed in many cases. It’s important to remember that guidelines and regulatory limits are not based solely on health and risks but industry influence and feasibility are always considered. The public may not know this, but it’s important for people to understand that limits set by regulatory bodies, like the FDA, are not 100% protective. As public health people we need to be sure to base our advice and our messages on sound science and provide people with a full view of the information we have available.

P.s. I was a blogger last year! In EHS we were very much taught to look beyond the regulation and examine the science (and peer reviewed journals are our holy grail) – that’s why I thought it might be good to make this comment. Good luck this semester.

AG September 28, 2012 at 9:18 am

Ez, love the post. I am with Kyasha…my first thought was about my many shades of MAC and the hope that I’m not slathering lead onto my lips! Ack. Thanks for making me think about what I’m putting ON my face, not just what I’m putting IN my body.

Now, to bust out my knitting needles to make you a scarf…


carmen September 28, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Love the post!!

internet marketing April 8, 2013 at 10:33 pm

In truth this was an incredible indepth post even so as with most excellent freelance writers there are many details that may be worked upon. Nevertheless never ever the actual a smaller amount it had been intriguing.

vichy spot remover May 22, 2013 at 8:09 am

Hello, i believe that i noticed you visited my web site thus i came to return the desire?
.I’m trying to in finding issues to improve my web site!I assume its ok to use some of your ideas!!

Http://Two-Gen.Com/ June 21, 2013 at 8:27 pm

I always spent my half an hour to read this website’s content daily along with a mug of coffee.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: