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Poisonous…kisses? Safety in cosmetics

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

Here’s a riddle for you:

It’s consumed daily by billions of people,

up to 14 times per day,

it’s poisonous…

and not illegal.

What is it?

Take some seconds to think about it.

Guessed the answer yet?

And the culprit is…lipstick!

Before you think this is going to be another exaggerated article, hang in there for a minute.

“A poison kiss: the problem of lead in lipstick”, was the title of a 2007 campaign for safe cosmetics. Multiple health and cancer prevention organizations promoted this and yet, 16 years later, this problem still hasn't been entirely resolved. [1]

First of all, let’s clarify that lipsticks or any other beauty products are not purposely made harmful. After all, they intend to make our skin healthier and more beautiful. [2]

So where does the whole thing go wrong?

Everything starts with colors..!

Figure 1. Natural dyes

And surprisingly enough, the culprits are natutal ingredients, and more specifically natural pigments!

Many people are aware that artificial or synthetic pigments are not the best option out there, as they have been associated with toxicity and even cancer. This leads the market to a tendency for natural pigments usage in cosmetics and foods.

Figure 2. Mica mineral

The problem is that natural pigments are made out of minerals found in rocks and soils around the world. This makes them susceptible to heavy metal contamination. These heavy metals include lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury, aluminum, beryllium, and thallium. [2,3]

As expected, while they can be traced in your makeup from affordable to high-end, luxury brands, you will definitely not find these on any cosmetic labels. How can they not be mentioned? Simply because they are not intended to be there, they are contaminants!

L’Oreal, Maybelline, Sisheido, M.A.C, Avon.

Sound a bit too familiar?

These are only some of the cosmetic brands found with lead (Pb) contamination in some of their products by an FDA research back in 2012, while University of California researchers found nine toxic heavy metals, in testing of 24 lip glosses and eight lipsticks. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should condemn the brands. FDA ‘s limit for lead in cosmetics (2016) is set at 10 parts per million (ppm) and the maximum amount that can be traced in any of the brands above is 7 ppm. Traces of heavy metals for any cosmetic product that is applied directly onto our skin are hardly absorbed and therefore, in tiny amounts have been considered safe. Hence, measures to completely ban them haven’t been taken. [4,5]

Ok, then why are we still talking about this?

Contemplate this:

Lipstick is not just sitting on our skin. We accidentally consume it by licking our lips and then we reapply it again and again. That way lead, which is neurotoxic and cancerous, enters our body and bloodstream.

Daily, for years. [4]

As it has been proven that heavy metals accumulate within our body, they can pose a serious threat to our health. Experts debate that the use of such products can be a dangerous habit and discourage their excess use, because heavy metals accumulate within us. At the same time, they stress the need for companies to exclude heavy metals from cosmetic products. [1,2]

Figure 3. Lead safe logos

On a lighter note, there are some things that you can do, including raising awareness. While we hope for more companies to produce cleaner products, here are some tips:

  • Look for lead-free or lead-safe certification in your products, or check in with your favorite company: their awareness on the matter, their policy on heavy metals, their pigments resources etc.

  • Keep makeup away from children and avoid wearing any if you have skin contact with them.

  • Always clean your face before going to bed. Products with activated charcoal may be helpful as they can absorb heavy metals.

  • Avoid reapplying lipstick too often and wipe it off before eating. [1]


[1] Campaign for safe cosmetics, by Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP):

[2] Akhtar A, Kazi TG, Afridi HI, Khan M. Human exposure to toxic elements through facial cosmetic products: Dermal risk assessment. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol. 2022 Jun;131:105145. doi: 10.1016/j.yrtph.2022.105145. Epub 2022 Feb 24. PMID: 35219764.

[3] Kazi TG, Afridi HI, Bhatti M, Akhtar A. A rapid ultrasonic energy assisted preconcentration method for simultaneous extraction of lead and cadmium in various cosmetic brands using deep eutectic solvent: A multivariate study. Ultrason Sonochem. 2019 Mar;51:40-48. doi: 10.1016/j.ultsonch.2018.10.016. Epub 2018 Oct 13. PMID: 30514484.

[4] The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

[5] Liu S, Hammond SK, Rojas-Cheatham A. Concentrations and potential health risks of metals in lip products. Environ Health Perspect. 2013 Jun;121(6):705-10. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1205518. Epub 2013 May 2. PMID: 23674482; PMCID: PMC3672908.

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