The Price of Red Lips

Metals and Other Toxins Are Found in Most Lipsticks
As a child I intently watched my mother put on bright red lipstick every morning before work. Even when she didn’t use a mirror, her lipstick always looked flawless. Recently, my mother asked me about the ingredients in her favorite red lipstick. Throughout my toxicology and environmental health hazard courses, none of my professors had ever mentioned cosmetic ingredients aside from endocrine-disrupting compounds. I couldn’t answer the question – what’s hidden in lipstick and is it harmful to us?

Red lipstick is notorious for being the lipstick color with the highest prevalence of lead. But research shows that it’s not just limited to tubes of red. Researchers at the University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Health tested 32 different lipsticks and lip glosses commonly found in drugstores and department stores for nine metals. They found manganese, titanium, chromium, nickel and aluminum in practically every product, lead in 75% of them, and cadmium in nearly half.

The metals are used in processing lipstick and are used to generate the perfect lipstick shade. Prior studies have verified their existence in cosmetics; however, this study went one step further by analyzing the product’s risk based on consumers’ potential daily intake of the metals. The researchers explain that lipstick and lip gloss are of highest concern because they are ingested or absorbed by the wearer throughout the day. Guidelines were generated for average and high use of lip makeup based on usage data from a previous study. Average use is defined as daily ingestion of 24 milligrams of lipstick per day, while high use is set at 87 milligrams ingested per day for women who continuously put on lipstick throughout the day.

Using acceptable daily intakes of the metals, researchers found that average use of some lipsticks and lip glosses may result in excessive exposure to chromium, a carcinogen linked to stomach tumors. High use of lipsticks may result in overexposure of aluminum, cadmium and manganese. Long-term exposure to high concentrations of manganese has been linked with toxicity in the nervous system.

Going into this, I expected lead to come out at the top of the list. But, while lead was detected in 24 of the products, it was at a concentration that was generally below the acceptable daily intake level. Researchers do caution that children would still be at risk to low levels of lead in lipsticks, since no level of lead exposure is considered safe for their developing bodies. In other words, moms should think twice before letting their daughters play in their makeup drawer.

The researchers concluded that the levels of these metals are extremely low, and that further study is required. I was left feeling unsatisfied by that conclusion. Metals are by no means the only ingredients in lipstick that raise a red flag. Many lipsticks contain parabens, which are endocrine-disrupting compounds. Carmine is a popular ingredient in red lipstick, and is acquired by boiling a highly pigmented beetle, which may cause severe allergic reactions in some wearers. Retinyl palmitate is a synthetic form of vitamin A that may be toxic to pregnant women, and limited research has linked exposure to it with cancer and reproductive effects.

Fortunately, there are many cosmetic companies that are adopting simpler ingredient lists. The Environmental Working Group started a cosmetic database many years ago, called Skin Deep, which has morphed into an extremely comprehensive resource for analyzing ingredients in cosmetic products.

In my quest for a better red lipstick, I came up with a few brand options including Bare Minerals, Josie Maran and Korres. Now my mother can feel better about the ingredients that she’s putting on her lips every day, and still look just as glamorous.