Lead in Lipstick? “Don’t Worry” Says the FDA

In 2007, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics released a report, “A Poison Kiss: The Problem of Lead in Lipstick.” More than half of the 33 brand-name lipsticks tested contained detectable levels of lead. None of these lipsticks listed lead as an ingredient.

The cosmetic industry responded that there was no problem with lead in lipstick. The Food and Drug Administration has no standards for how much lead is acceptable in lipstick. But the public was outraged.

This story continues, but first let's take a look at why findings like these are especially important if you are pregnant, trying to get pregnant or hope one day to give birth. Shaping our Legacy: Reproductive Health and the Environment, a report by the University of California San Francisco Program on Reproductive Health, comes out of the Summit on Environmental Challenges to Reproductive Health and Fertility, co-hosted with the Collaborative on Health and the Environment in 2007. The report documents numerous links between reproductive health and exposure to lead. For example:

  • We have known that exposure to chemicals can harm human reproduction since Roman times, when lead was first recognized to cause miscarriage and infertility in men and women.
  • Exposure to numerous chemicals has been linked to menstrual cycle irregularities in adult women. For example, women exposed to lead at work have shorter menstrual cycles and more frequent, intense and prolonged bleeding.
  • Exposing female mice to lead prevents their ovarian follicles from developing into mature eggs.
  • Lead exposure has been linked to poor sperm quality.
  • Longer periods of time to conceive can be associated with exposure to metals such as lead.
  • Premature birth has also been associated with exposure to lead.
  • Lead exposures have been associated with intrauterine growth restriction or low birthweight.
  • Damage from lead exposure can be passed on to subsequent generations.

In addition, there is no debate that children with elevated lead levels can experience learning and developmental challenges.

Fast forward to 2009. The FDA just released a follow-up study on lead in lipstick. They found lead in all 20 lipsticks tested, at levels ranging from 0.09 parts per million (ppm) to 3.06 ppm-more than four times higher than the highest lead level of 0.65 reported in the 2007 Campaign for Safe Cosmetics study.

Again, the industry claimed that the levels of lead in lipstick pose no safety risk. And the FDA claimed that this level of lead exposure is acceptable, but still has no legal limit for how much lead is acceptable in lipstick. Yet one-third of the tested lipsticks exceeded the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's 0.1 ppm limit for lead in candy-a standard established to protect children from directly ingesting lead. Lipstick products, like candy, are directly ingested into the body.

But the FDA shouldn't get the last word on safety. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states, "No safe blood lead level has been identified." The agency suggests avoiding all sources of lead exposure when possible, including lead-containing cosmetics. Another study confirms that there really is no safe level of exposure to lead.

Sean Palfrey, M.D., a professor of pediatrics and public health at Boston University and the medical director of Boston's Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, commented on the FDA's latest report, "Since recent science suggests that there is truly no safe lead exposure for children and pregnant women, it is disturbing that manufacturers are allowed to continue to sell lead-containing lipsticks...Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure, because lead easily crosses the placenta and enters the fetal brain where it can interfere with normal development."

Industry representatives will often make claims such as: lead is a natural substance and is all around us, so the low levels in lipsticks are not a problem. But exposure to lead comes from a range of sources, and these exposures add up. For example, one of the largest sources of lead exposure is from any house built before 1978, as they have a high chance of having lead paint (lead paint was banned in 1978). The paint can chip and form dust that is then ingested, especially by children crawling on the floor.

So where does that leave you, the individual? First, it indicates that any time you can avoid lead exposure, you should. In the case of lipstick, there is no real way of knowing what the safer brands are since lead is not required to be listed on the label, and since there is no guarantee that every sample of every brand would test at the same level of lead. Consider using it less or avoiding it all together, especially if you hope to conceive or are pregnant. Also consider getting your house tested for lead to be sure you are not compounding your potential lead exposure.

In the long run, our health will be best protected when government agencies set safety standards for the most vulnerable populations-children, women through their child-bearing years and developing babies.

Author's note: In addition to writing for the Collaborative on Health and Environment, I also work on the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

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