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The Lipstick Chronicles: Part 1, Lead.

June 20, 2009

I have never really got on with lipstick although many of my friends can’t live without it. I put it down to my propensity to break out in cold sores / chapped lips with alarming regularity –  chapped lips + lipstick = disaster! Anyway, I am sure that many of you can’t believe that I, at 34 don’t even own a lipstick so for all you lipstick lovers, here’s a little story.

Many of us have heard about  how there is lead in our lipsticks and how the average woman consumers around 4lb (approx 1.8Kg) of lipstick in her lifetime, well with each stick of lipstick weighing about 3.5g that’s 514 sticks for every lipstick wearing woman – WHAT? I find that hard to believe but have very little (i.e no) evidence with which to counter that argument. So, assuming that we all eat our lipstick and that we wear lipstick every day of our lives from the age of 18 – 75 , we consume around 9 lippies a year (or a little under one a month). Now that is just silly but we will go along with it anyway. The question is this, how much lead is our lipstick adding to our diet then?

In 2007 a report came out stating that a number of lipsticks that were tested contained higher than expected levels of lead. Levels ranged from next to none  to up to 0.65 ppm.  This was touted as scandalous as the FDA have limited the lead in candy likely to be consumed by small children to 0.1 ppm (part per million) – this level was scaled back from a previous limit of 0.5ppm in 2006.  The wording “small children” is significant as it is thought that children absorb between 30-75 % of ingested lead vs only 11% for adults.  So is it scandalous that our lipsticks contain lead?

The short answer is NO. Lead (Pb on the periodic table) is a heavy metal that is rarely found in this form in nature. Most often it is paired up with something like copper or zinc requiring extracting to get the pure element.  Lead is toxic to humans and will accumulate in the body over time leading to all sorts of problems – it is especially toxic to children. So why isn’t lead in our lipsticks a problem?  Because like everything, it is all about dose and exposure.   When I started driving there was still lead in fuel, some houses still had some lead pipes in the plumbing and toys adorned with lead paint could still be purchased.   Nowadays, the lead content of things like fuel and paint is almost non-existent (at least in the USA, Europe and Australia).  Toys are strictly governed and lead piping has been ripped out of practically every home. Our daily dose of lead is now much lower  than our grandparents would have been exposed to. However,  lead is a very stable element and one that doesn’t just disappear overnight.

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I studied chemistry at University and as part of my final year I ran a study on lead in the environment. I did this by collecting grass samples from fields and roadsides, boiling them up in nitric acid then running my washings through an atomic absorption spectrometer. This allowed me to work out how much lead was in the grass! I can’t remember how much lead I found but it was there and the grass by the road had more than the grass in the fields, as one would expect.  Lead tends to settle to the ground pretty quickly after being blown out of an exhaust pipe!   The outcome of all of this is the following, we used lead to make our cars run smoothly (it improves the octane rating) between 1922 and 2001 (country dependent). During this time, Lead was also used in a variety of other consumer products including paint and household plumbing.  Lead is very stable = Lead is still with us!

The fact that lead is still found in our lipsticks is mainly due to improved screening methods – nobody adds lead to their lipsticks, why would you?  The levels of lead found in lipsticks are extremely low. 65 ppm is tiny, especially when you take into consideration that lipsticks are not meant to be eaten!  A study of soil in Chicago showed lead levels of between 200-50,000 parts per million (study carried out by Argonne Laboratories) Anyone growing veggies in that soil has more to worry about that the ladies eating 9 lipsticks a year!

So, what advice can I offer to those of you still not convinced about the safety of their lipstick?  Go without OR try not to eat it! It isn’t that hard, honest. If however, you still want to wear your lippy but would prefer it to be as natural as possible you can always try some of the brands claiming to be “lead free”.   The funny thing that I noticed is that some of the brands claiming to be “free from” all sorts of nasties still contain carmine (CI 75470) which is the colour derived from the little beetles in Peru (also known as food colour E120).  While I have nothing in particular against carmine, it is a known irritant and has caused anaphylactic shocks in susceptible people but that story will have to wait for another day.

Until next time, enjoy your day with or without lipstick.

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