Studies have found toxic heavy metals, including lead, cadmium, arsenic, aluminum, mercury and other toxins deemed hazardous by the CDC in a random sampling of lip products used by women of all ages.
For millions of women the world over, this casts a pall on the transformative promise of cosmetics to make us look and feel more beautiful.
FDA Doesn't Regulate Cosmetics
Like most women I had always assumed that any beauty product on the shelves has undergone testing to verify its contents are safe - so much for assumptions! Once I did a little digging into the subject, I found out that unlike pharmaceuticals or pesticides, chemical ingredients contained in cosmetics do NOT have to be tested or approved before they are put on the market.
You can read it right there on the FDA website: "Under the law, cosmetic products and ingredients do not need FDA premarket approval, with the exception of color additives."
And to add insult to injury, the main law we've got that attempts to monitor safety, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), doesn’t regulate cosmetics either.
That’s worrisome given the fact that heavy metals like lead, arsenic, mercury, aluminum, zinc, chromium and iron have been found in numerous personal products, from teeth whiteners and skin creams to eyeliners and lipsticks that millions of people use every day.
Take Lipsticks for Example...
Studies have been finding lead – a heavy metal that the CDC warns humans should avoid exposure to entirely – in lipstick for years. The first serious investigation of lead in lipsticks was in 2007 when the nonprofit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics tested a range of products and found traces of lead in 61% of name brand lipsticks. The list of toxic lip care products even included a tinted chap stick made by Burt's Bees, a company (now owned by Clorox) that touts "truly natural products that have a positive effect on both you and the world you live in."
So much for truth in advertising! We know that elevated lead levels in adults can lead to a host of health problems from miscarriages to seizures and that exposure is also linked to:
- Learning, language and behavioral problems
- Hormonal disturbances
- Delayed onset of puberty in girls and development of testes in boys
Read More: Bioaccumulation of Toxic Elements - Can Persistent Low Exposure Lead to Large Problems?
Under pressure from consumers the FDA released a follow-up study in 2010 that found unsafe lead levels in all 400 samples of lipstick tested – researchers found levels four times higher than those found in the 2007 Campaign study.
Researchers found that women who applied lipstick from two to 14 times a day were ingesting significant quantities of heavy metals.
Lead Isn't the Only Toxin Lurking in Lipstick
A study by University of California researchers (Environmental Health Perspectives) found nine toxic heavy metals, including cadmium, arsenic, aluminum, manganese and other toxins deemed hazardous by the CDC in a random sampling of 32 lip products used by young women aged 14-19 years old. Toxin levels varied widely depending on the brand, but researchers found that women who applied lipstick, whether frequently at fourteen times a day down to just twice a day, were ingesting significant quantities of heavy metals—20% or more of the daily amount considered safe in drinking water.
Heavy metals are often used in mineral dyes, which give lipstick its pigment, and are also found in soil and groundwater. Some are downright dangerous, such as cadmium, a carcinogen that has been shown in breast cancer biopsies and in lab experiments to cause cancer cells to multiply. Mercury, a particularly nasty toxin found in many imported skin creams can build up in body tissues causing tremors, memory loss, vision and/or hearing problems and other lethal aspects of mercury poisoning.
A Deadly Dose
At this point you may be asking, so how concerned do I need to be? According to the CDC there is no safe level of lead exposure in children, and in adults lead is dangerous even in tiny doses since it accumulates in the body and wreaks havoc over time. This is of particular concern according to some experts who estimate that the average woman eats 10 pounds of lipstick in her lifetime! And as we have now learned, more than half are contaminated with lead, making lipstick a leading cause of lead toxicity for women. (FDA, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics).
Other reasons to be concerned:
- Skin is not the most efficient filter of toxins, absorbing up to 60% of what we put on it.
- Some toxins bio-accumulate, taking their toll over time.
- Scientists now talk of babies born "prepolluted" with hundreds of measurable toxins in their bloodstream.
When you're dealing with chemicals that are carcinogenic, interfere with hormones, or are even toxic to your nervous system, the goal is to minimize exposure as much as possible.
But first we need to know how much exposure we've had in the first place. Fortunately a simple blood and/or dried urine test can determine whether we carry an unsafe body burden of potentially lethal heavy metals.
The big question then becomes how to avoid exposure to hidden heavy metals that don't show up on ingredient labels. Ultimately its up to us to do our own research and find safer alternatives (check out online resources below). For women in particular that might mean parting with our favorite lipstick, which rather than making us beautiful could be making us sick.
FDA Consumer Updates – Is It Really FDA Approved?
Campaign for Safe Cosmetics - a list of toxin-free products
Think Dirty app – allows you to scan product safety as you shop