Does the lipstick on your lip stick to my face?

Because you might be giving me lead poisoning.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics sponsored tests that showed traces of lead in many popular brands of lipstick, like L’Oreal Colour Riche (which I only mention because some happens to be in my bag right now). The CSC claim the levels found — some up to .65 parts per million — exceeded safe levels, using the FDA’s limit of .1ppm set for candy.

So, let’s get something clear: no amount of lead is good for you, and if you can avoid ingesting it, you should. Like, don’t chew on the windowsill of your historic lake house, or lick anything made in China, or make a turkey and lead hoagie. But when we’re using candy as a marker for how much lead should be in lipstick, we should probably critically examine the differences between those two items.

For starters, you eat candy by the handful. Unless you suffer from pica, you spread lipstick thinly on your lips and occasionally ingest whatever doesn’t end up on your wine glass. Other differences:

  • candy is delicious, lipstick is not
  • candy is cheap, lipstick is too damned expensive
  • there aren’t twenty partially-consumed Jolly Ranchers taking up room in my bathroom cabinet

But I digress. The CSC blasts the FDA for not setting a limit on the amount of allowable lead in lipstick. From their press release:

Nevertheless, the FDA has not set a limit for lead in lipstick, which fits with the disturbing absence of FDA regulatory oversight and enforcement capacity for the $50 billion personal care products industry.

That’s crazy, because the FDA actually has an Office of Cosmetics and Colors. They even have a rainbow banner image. What are they doing over there? Even John Kerry’s in a tizzy about the lack of accountability:

FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors has described major gaps in federal authority over cosmetic safety: “…a cosmetic manufacturer may use almost any raw material as a cosmetic ingredient and market the product without an approval from FDA.”

Plus, apparently they’re not getting the money they need. So, basically we have a report that is probably being overhyped but an important oversight agency that’s being underfunded. Negative points for everyone — including (especially) the consumers.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. It is possible that you could get a significant lead exposure from lipstick if it gets absorbs through your lips – after all nicotine from chewing tobacco gets in your blood through the skin inside your mouth.

    Though obviously, lipstick can't be as harmful as chew. Warning! gross pictures on this webpage:

    Needs study!

  2. From:

    Dermal (skin) absorption

    The ability of the skin to absorb certain organic lead compounds, such as tetraethyl lead found in petrol has been recognized since the 1940s. Recent laboratory research suggests inorganic lead compounds (e.g. lead nitrate, lead acetate and lead oxide) can be absorbed through the skin but in very small quantities. As a blood lead test is the most common detection method, additional research is needed on lead testing methods. Skin absorption may also pose a threat to workers in the construction trades and paint industry that are less likely to wear protective clothing to prevent lead dust from adhering to their skin

  3. Even before following the links, I can recognize this pattern:

    Oh sure, their budget's been cut until they can't verify pesticide protocols at Dow & Dupont Orchards, check for salmonella and BSE at Macho Beef Ranch, or audit the test results from Favorite Drug Company… but nevermindallthat, make them deal with evil lipstick right now!

    (checks press release) Yep, that's it. Lots of scare talk: "surprisingly high levels of lead", "more than half… had detectable levels of lead", "lead is a proven neurotoxin" leading to a laundry-list of horrors, "there is no safe level", and the comparision to candy is followed immediately by "a standard established to protect children".

    For bonus points, notice how the brand names they highlight stack up: "Riche, Riche Lipcolor Addict"

  4. Prediction: This study will be used in the near future as a justification for firing people at the FDA. Specifically, careerists will be replaced by industry shills, or "chainsaw experts", or both.

    If they actually do make new regulations for cosmetics, the new regulations will require certification processes sufficiently expensive to knock any remaining bit players out of the market, while the big manufacturers simply raise prices to compensate.

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