Lead in Your Lipstick? The Facts on Heavy Metals in Cosmetics

The term “heavy metal” may not mean much to you (unless it’s referring to the musical genre, of course), but you likely know plenty about lead.

Lead is the headliner of the heavy metals category, due to its devastating and often irreversible effects on brain development and behavior in children, and its serious health risks in exposed adults, such as neurological effects, high blood pressure, thyroid dysfunction, and reproductive toxicity.

Lead’s human health risks led the United States to ban it from house paint in 1978 and from gasoline in 1996, but today, it still lingers in unexpected places. Think household dust, certain packaged foods, some drinking water, and to a lesser extent, color cosmetics. Because lead is still so prevalent, it’s important that we do our best to limit exposure while understanding that our ability to guarantee that anything is “lead free” is virtually impossible.

For example, as a follow-up study to one led by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted its own expanded, 400-lipstick study, which found lead in the vast majority of lipsticks tested. Although the FDA has set limits for lead in some color additives used in cosmetics, there is still no FDA limit defined for lead in cosmetics, so it has largely been left up to companies like Beautycounter to make their own heavy metal standards.

Should you be concerned? And what are we doing to address the possibility of heavy metals making their way into our products at Beautycounter? Read on for the facts.

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What exactly are heavy metals and what are the risks associated with exposure?

Heavy metals are elements that occur naturally, but become concentrated and widely distributed in the environment via human activities like mining and manufacturing. (This is one of many reasons we, at Beautycounter, often tell people that just because an ingredient is natural, doesn’t always mean it’s “safe.”) As a result of the manufacturing process of raw materials, we’re exposed to heavy metals, usually in very small amounts measured in parts per million (ppm).

Some heavy metals, like lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury, may cause organ damage and are classified as possible or known human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, but the severity of their effects depend on factors like dose, route of exposure, and a person’s age at exposure.

Why are heavy metals in cosmetics?

Companies are not intentionally adding heavy metals to cosmetics. Instead, they are typically contaminants that tag along with both mineral and synthetic ingredients used to give products color.

Before we even started to make cosmetics at Beautycounter, we knew that we were going to test all color products for heavy metals in order to uphold our commitment to safety and transparency. So, during our product development process, we packed up our cosmetics formulas and sent them to an independent lab to be tested for 12 heavy metals. We were dismayed to see that even some of our shades contained heavy metals. We were shocked.

As a result, we did not bring these products to market, and immediately went back to the drawing board.

So what did we do about it?

As we worked with suppliers and formulators to better understand how and why heavy metals might be contaminating the colorants we were using, it became clear that getting to zero heavy metal contamination—while always the goal—simply wasn’t going to be an option across the board. We needed to define our own allowable limits of heavy metal levels in order to institute a standard that would be mindful of consumers’ health and keep this issue front and center for suppliers, formulators, and our company.

So, in the absence of U.S. governmental guidance, we have set our allowable limits at or below the strictest international guidance on acceptable trace levels of heavy metal impurities in cosmetics, using the most up-to-date scientific evidence to inform our standards. That means that Beautycounter is screening all of our color cosmetics for heavy metals and doing our best to reach “non-detectable” heavy metal limits when possible, while always keeping them within our health-protective company standards.

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