Lipstick is Full of Metal and Lead: Why Use It?

Many lipsticks and lip glosses found at local drugstores and department stores contain lead, cadmium, chromium, aluminum and five other metals, a just-published study by researchers at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health reports. Earlier studies, including one done in 2007 by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, reported the presence of lead in 61 percent of popular products. The new study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, goes a step further by estimating the risk to consumers who use these products.

Researchers analyzed the concentration of the metals in 32 commonly-found products and then estimated how much metal someone using these every day would be exposed to. What they found was that “some of the toxic metals are occurring at levels that could possibly have an effect in the long term,” says principal investigator S. Katharine Hammond, professor of Environmental Health Sciences.

What’s in Commonly Available Cosmetics: Lead, Cadmium, Chromium

The products tested were common brands selected by a group of young women in Oakland, California. Lead was found in 24 of the 32 products, though at levels that were “generally lower than the acceptable daily intake level.” But such was not so for other metals, including cadmium, which (as Mother Jones points out) is a carcinogen that has been found in breast cancer biopsies and is also commonly found as a soil contaminant. Chromium, another metal identified in the cosmetics, is also a carcinogen and has been linked to stomach tumors.

Based on the study‘s definitions of “acceptable daily intakes,” use of the products tested (especially if someone applies them repeatedly throughout the day) could lead to “potential overexposure to aluminum, cadmium and manganese as well.” Prolonged use of the products could even lead to “exposure to high concentrations of manganese,” which has been “linked to toxicity in the nervous system.”

Sonya Lunder, a scientist at the Environmental Working Group, highlights two concerns raised by the study: can anyone use these products safely? (Not really: as study underscores, the products tested are not safe for young children to play with, as lead exposure at any level is unsafe for developing nervous systems.) Linder also asks “how low can those levels [of metals] go?” Could their content be lowered? Or could safer, if not simply safe, ingredients be used?

Should All Cosmetics Be Avoided?

You might, after reading about these results, choose to forget about cosmetics all together. Some women do prefer to skip the makeup and not submit to what they see as conventional standards of beauty. Some make clear that they’re feminists and wear makeup not to please anyone else, but because they wish to do so.

Should you wish to avoid applying metal along with makeup, Mother Jones offers a list of commonly availably lipsticks and lip glosses with the highest amounts of lead so you can know what products to avoid. Cosmetics most certainly do not have to be made with substances dangerous to our health and to the environment. Some ingredients to look out for and beware of include petrochemicals, the highly vague ingredience “fragrance” and nanoparticles. The Campaign For Safe Cosmetics has suggestions for products that are safe; Treehugger offers a list of “nutricosmetics” that are safe enough to eat as well as put on your skin.

The European Union has something that the U.S. does not: a directive about cosmetics according to which cadmium, chromium and lead at any level are unacceptable for use in cosmetic products. The U.C. Berkeley’s researcher’s study is, as they acknowledge, small in scale. But it does provide an impetus for calling on the FDA to tighten regulations about what can be put into cosmetics, about the U.S. having guidelines like those in the E.U. and about transparency in labeling ingredients — about making sure that consumers know exactly what they are applying on their skin.

Related Care2 Coverage

Testing Cosmetics on Animals is Going Out of Style

EU Cosmetics Testing Ban Begins, Will the US Ever Follow?

Can A Woman’s Make-Up Choices Help Her Shatter the Glass Ceiling?

Photo from Thinkstock


.1 years ago

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Chris G.
.2 years ago

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Ala Morales
Ala Morales4 years ago

All these cosmetic companies don't care about women's health. They use more chemicals now than before because it is cheaper to manufacture. The ingredients on lipsticks are written in tiny letters so that you cannot properly see. I stopped using lipstick since I did the research because I don't want to get any cancer or neurological disorder from metal and aluminum. All cosmetic companies are only interested in profit not women's health.

Jane R.
Jane R4 years ago

I use lipstick, but I'm careful about what I buy. If a lipstick claims to last a very long time, don't buy it. It contains too much lead. Just buy a cheap brand. It might not last as long but doesn't contain as many harmful chemicals. So what if you have to keep re-applying it throughout the day?

Tracy Ferguson
Tracy Ferguson4 years ago

Your swallowing that, gross. I use a gloss from the health store called Magic Organic Lip Balm. Love to tell you the ingredients but can't read them, too small and too dark but check it out. It's good.

Thomas W.
Thomas W4 years ago


Joanne A.
Joanne A4 years ago


natalie n.
natalie n4 years ago

this is really bad, relooking all my brands to get green or natural ones

Jac West
Jac West4 years ago

Amazing thank you for all this info...I never wear lip stick myself as I just cannot stand the feeling of it on my lips and I'm not into much make up- I wear only small amounts compared to what I use to wear in my younger years.....BUT I'm constantly surprised at the amount of make up that I see many young girls and woman wearing nowadays so much so that it looks claggy (if that's a word) and they would look so much more attractive with less or even none.

EcRo E.
ER C4 years ago

Cynthia H.

____ True dat ! You are so right !

___ big $$$ hungry $$$ mongers.

___ sucking the life out of the consumers.

___ Thank goodness for the whistle blowers !!!