Cosmetics Ingredients: Harmful, Safe, or Who Knows?

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009 | Beauty and Awareness, General

Is there lead in your lipstick? Are there harmful chemicals in your skin creams? The answer we all hope for is “No,” but the reality is actually not so simple.

Do we really know what is in our cosmetics? Lead has a sordid history of being used in cosmetics due to its pigment-enhancing properties, but, now despite being known to be a neurotoxin, lead is still making an appearance in cosmetics today.  If you remember the scare over lead in lipstick from a couple years ago, you will understand that we cannot totally rely on cosmetics ingredient labels to tell us everything that is actually in our beauty products.

The lead in lipstick controversy stemmed from a 2007 report, “Poison Kiss,” from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, that tested lead levels in 33 lipsticks, and revealed that lead was detected in two-thirds of those lipsticks, including some made by L’Oreal, Maybelline, and Cover Girl, though lead wasn’t listed as one of the ingredients.  The resulting consumer response to the report and findings of lead in lipstick ranged from fearful outrage to, surprisingly, stiff dismissal.

Those who dismissed the findings as “un-concerning,” cited reasons such as the personal insignificance of the reported lead levels or even a concern that the study was not peer-reviewed by the scientific community. However, it is not hard to understand why many consumers were actually shocked and upset by the findings of lead in popular lipsticks. Regardless of any opinions about the report itself, I’m sure all of us would like to have zero levels of lead in cosmetics rather than some lead, if given a choice.

More on Consumer Choice and Cosmetics Ingredients…

Consumer advocates point out that the US Government (FDA) currently does not impose the same regulations on cosmetics products as it does when regulating acceptable levels of contaminant ingredients in food (ie. candy as mentioned in the “Poison Kiss” report), and the government does not require full disclosure of cosmetics ingredients.  Moreover, there is concern that US cosmetics manufacturers are essentially left to self regulate the levels of lead and toxic ingredients in their products.  In contrast, in Europe, manufacturers are required to maintain product health safety assessments and are prohibited from using over 1300 banned substances, including lead and its compounds.  (See EU Council Directive on Cosmetics 76/768/EEC.)

Raising Awareness…

To address the problems with cosmetics ingredients and to educate consumers about cosmetics labeling, beauty company Best in Beauty recently began an advocacy campaign called Labels for Life to help consumers “be aware of the toxic chemicals included in so many personal care products many people use daily.”  The campaign is geared toward teaching consumers how to read cosmetics labels and to be aware of what they put on their bodies.

Though the concentrations of lead detected in lipstick in the 2007 report were actually within the allowable levels of lead in drinking water,* it is certainly still important to raise consumer awareness about lead in cosmetics (without causing undue alarm), and to ensure that consumers are fully educated about toxic ingredients that have the potential to enter into the body through cosmetics.  However, since lead can make its way into products accidentally, reading cosmetics ingredient labels may not be enough to protect consumers from products unknowingly contaminated with lead.  Of course, raising social awareness of this problem is an important step to finding good solutions.

Finding Solutions…

Perhaps cosmetics labeling regulations should require cosmetics companies to at least indicate a “maximum lead content” on their labels, much like the maximum allowable concentration levels specified by the government for our food and water supply. Or, regulations could even require cosmetics manufacturers to apply a warning label when lead can potentially be found in the product.  However, these requirements would only work if testing for lead and other toxins were mandatory (as with children’s products under the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act).  Unfortunately, at present, there are no robust testing requirements in place.

As you can see, cosmetics consumers must still be vigilant in reading product labels and being aware of potentially toxic ingredients, but in the end, manufacturers and US regulators must also step up to fully protect consumers.

*To find out more about lead toxicity and the allowable lead level in drinking water, visit the US Dept. of Health and Human Services lead facts page.

A pdf version of the full Campaign for Safe Cosmetics report, “Poison Kiss,” is available on the Campaign website.

Meilily: Bringing You Beauty & Awareness!

P.S. For an excellent article discussing both sides of the lead in lipstick debate, check out this New York Times article.

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1 Comment to Cosmetics Ingredients: Harmful, Safe, or Who Knows?

Fabulous Over Forty linked here: [...] Meilily discusses cosmetics ingredients: are they harmful, safe, or who knows? [...]

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