Lead in lipstick – is it an issue? It is for the Campaign For Safe Cosmetics!

A recent FDA study of the lead content in 400 lipsticks found that lead concentrations ranged between 0.02 parts per million (ppm) and 7.17ppm. The average concentration over the 400 samples was 1.11ppm. 1.11ppm is 0.000111% – a very small amount. A previous study by the FDA on only 20 different lipsticks found an average concentration of lead of 1.07ppm, and the highest value was 3.06ppm. The full results of these studies can be found here.

It is important to note that the highest levels from the 2 different studies were well above the average in each case. The CFSC is using the results from the single highest in each study to claim that lead concentrations in lipstick have doubled since the first study was carried out in 2007 (from 3.06ppm to 7.17ppm). That claim constitutes an unforgiveable manipulation of the data and is, basically, a lie. Taking one single data point from one study and comparing it with the highest data point from another study cannot remotely be considered as evidence of a doubling of the lead content in lipsticks in general, or even for that specific lipstick, as the highest lead content was found in different brands in each study. I cannot overemphasize just how big a lie the CFSC claim is. The REAL comparison is in the average lead concentrations; the first study was 1.07ppm, the second was 1.11ppm. Statistically, there is no difference in these figures, and there is no basis for claiming ANY increase whatsoever. Given that the second study used 20 times the number of samples, it was almost inevitable that a few would be shown to contain higher levels that those in the much smaller, earlier study.

Exposure to lead is not a good thing, however, and it would be better to avoid wherever possible. The problem is that lead is all around us, thanks in part to the lead compounds used as “anti-knocking” agents in fuel for many decades. It is in the air, in the soil, in our food and in our drinks.

The REAL question is “is the presence of lead in lipstick a significant source of exposure for humans”.

risk assessment can tell us the answer.

Let’s take the average figure of lead in those lipsticks – 1.11ppm. Let’s then work out the exposure (i.e. how much lipstick is used on a daily basis). One study of 360 women (Food Chem Toxicol. 2005 Feb;43(2):279-91.) found a mean exposure to lipstick of 24mg/day, so that would seem to be a reasonable starting point, but let’s increase the figure for exposure to 100mg/day to consider someone who uses 4 times the mean exposure (and to make the calculation much easier for me!).

1.11ppm of lead in 100mg of lipstick is a daily exposure of 111ng (111 nanograms – 1 nanogram is 0.000000001g).

Some toxicologists have been quoted by the CFSC (possibly out of context) that there is no safe level of exposure to lead, but there are no studies that give a specific dose that will cause any of the effects to which lead exposure is linked. It is not possible, therefore, to place a specific risk on the use of lipsticks due to the lead content. What IS possible is to place the exposure from lead in lipstick into some sort of context that is meaningful. One way to do this is to look at the lead in our drinking water.  I will take the EPA limit of 15 parts per billion (ppb) for drinking water as the basis for comparison. A small cup of coffee would contain about 100g of water. If the water used in the coffee contained lead at the maximum permitted concentration, this would be an exposure of 0.0000001g of lead, or 10,000 nanograms – almost 100 times the amount of exposure from lipstick (from above – 111ng – using an exposure of 4 times the mean usage of lipstick) – from a SINGLE CUP OF COFFEE! How many cups of coffee do you drink each day – or tea, or water, or beer, or any soft drink?

Even assuming an extremely low daily water intake of 200g, the lead exposure is 400 times the exposure from lipstick! Most people will drink at least 5 times that quantity of water in one form or another. OK, I have taken the lead content of drinking water at the maximum permitted level but, even if your water is one tenth of the limit for lead content, lipstick is at least 40 times less harmful than water. Furthermore, this assumes that all the lipstick applied is ingested (not the case) and that the lead in the lipstick that IS ingested will be available for the body to absorb (again, not the case). The calculation I have carried out errs strongly on the side of caution in every aspect, and still it can be seen that lipstick is by no means a significant contribution to daily exposure to lead. I am not using numbers to play some sort of devious trick to prove a point – these are justifiable numbers erring hugely on the side of caution sufficiently to be able to claim that I may have underestimated the comparative safety factor of 40 by a further factor of 100 quite easily, to give a comparative safety factor of up to 4000. (For the pedantic, this is because I have taken a tenth of the maximum permitted level in water, where a fifth may be closer to the reality, plus a factor of at least one fifth of the likely water consumption, and assumed that all the lipstick is ingested when 50% may be closer to the absolute maximum, and a highly conservative factor for the lack of bioavailability of 20% – which works out at 2 x 5 x 2 x 5 = 100.)

In summary, the exposure to lead from using lipstick is a tiny proportion of the overall daily exposure to lead from water (and I haven’t even included food in the calculation). The Campaign For Safe Cosmetics is making a great deal of noise, because the disinformation they are spreading about lead in lipsticks is scary for the average consumer, and more books get sold and more donations are made to “the cause”. The companies who are jumping on the “scary lipstick” bandwagon are equally guilty of misrepresentation of the facts. Many of these companies promote “natural” products, but they need to be wary of this stance. Someone may start looking at the lead content in the natural extracts – lead is in the soil, remember. I wonder how much they will find . . . . . . . ?

Post script:

It is interesting to note that, amongst the CFSC’s Compact signatories, there is a company, with two products containing lead in the second FDA study.

114 – Colorganics Hemp Organics Purple Haze (1.38ppm)

119 – Colorganics Hemp Organics Purple Haze (1.36ppm)

Given that the CFSC claim there is NO safe limit for lead in cosmetics, I wonder what action they intend taking with their errant signatory?

The safety of cosmetics is a serious subject, but the CFSC are playing games with numbers – without the science (or logic) to support them. Why?

Declaration of interest:

I have absolutely no commercial interest in lipstick whatsoever. However, I know many lovely ladies who wear a lot of lipstick, and I would hate them to stop using it because a self-appointed “consumer safety” organisation decides to twist facts and manipulate data.


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