Four hundred of the nation’s most popular lipsticks contained trace levels of lead when tested recently by the federal government, confirming similar results of earlier analyses but on a much wider scale and at higher levels than previously detected.
Five L’Oreal and Maybelline lipsticks, owned by L’Oreal USA, ranked among the top 10 most contaminated brands, according to the analysis by the Food and Drug Administration. Two Cover Girl and two NARS lipsticks also landed in top 10 slots, as did one from Stargazer.
The findings exacerbate an ongoing disagreement between the FDA and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a consumer group that’s been pushing the government for years to set limits for lead levels in lipsticks. The FDA has resisted, insisting that the lead levels detected in two rounds of its own testing, including the most recent one, do not pose safety risks. But the consumer group says the FDA has no scientific basis for its conclusion.
Reports of lead in lipstick date to the 1990s, when test results from a commercial laboratory raised concerns. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics tested 33 red lipsticks in 2007 and found that two-thirds of them contained lead — and that one-third of those exceeded the FDA’s limit for lead in candy. The FDA followed up with its own tests on 20 lipsticks in 2008 and then on 400 lipsticks in the most recent analysis, and found detectable levels in all the products it tested.
But the FDA, which posted its latest findings online in December, said comparing lipstick to candy is unfair.
“It is not scientifically valid to equate the risk to consumers presented by lead levels in candy, a product intended for ingestion, with that associated with lead levels in lipstick, a product intended for topical use and ingested in much smaller quantities than candy,” the FDA said in comments posted on its website.
The Personal Care Products Council, the trade group representing the cosmetics industry, agreed with the FDA’s assessment.
Halyna Breslawec, the council’s chief scientist, said her group has petitioned the agency to set a limit on the amount of lead allowed in cosmetics. The consensus on what that limit should be —10 parts per million, Breslawec said — is higher than the levels detected by the two rounds of FDA testing and in line with proposals in Canada and Germany.
Breslawec said that lead is not intentionally added to lipstick or any other cosmetic but that many color additives approved by the FDA are mineral-based, and therefore contain trace levels of lead that is naturally found the soil, water and air.
Determining the true safety level for lead in cosmetics remains the stumbling block.
The FDA’s most recent analysis found the highest level of lead, 7.19 parts per million, in Maybelline’s Color Sensational “Pink Petal” lipstick. But the average lead concentration in the 400 lipsticks tested was 1.11 parts per million, very close to the average from its initial survey of about two dozen lipsticks in 2008.
The FDA hired a private laboratory to do the testing. The agency selected the lipsticks based on the parent company’s market share, though it also included a few brands from niche markets.
“We do not consider the lead levels we found in the lipsticks to be a safety concern,” the FDA said on its website. “The lead levels we found are within the limits recommended by other public health authorities for lead in cosmetics.”
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has a different take on the results.
The lead content in Maybelline’s “Pink Petal” is more than twice as high as levels found in the previous FDA report and more than 275 times the level found in the least-contaminated brand in the recent report, the group said in a letter to the agency this month.
The least-contaminated brand, Wet & Wild Mega Mixers Lip Balm, was also the least expensive, “demonstrating that price is not an indicator of good manufacturing practices,” the group said.
The group cited federal research that has concluded that there’s no safe level of lead exposure for children and has stressed the need to shield children and pregnant women from exposure.
“Lead builds in the body over time, and lead-containing lipstick applied several times a day, every day, can add up to significant level exposure,” Mark Mitchell, co-chairman of the Environmental Health Task Force for the National Medical Association, said in the group’s statement.
California, a trailblazer when it comes to lead regulation, has grappled with this issue.
In 2008, after the first reports of lead in lipsticks, the state attorney general’s office examined whether cosmetics firms had run afoul of a California law that requires businesses to provide a reasonable warning if they knowingly expose consumers to chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm.
The state concluded, based on public data, that the concentration of lead in lipsticks was too low to trigger the law. Indeed, the duty to warn consumers would not arise until the lead concentration reached 5 parts per million, the state said.
In the FDA’s study, the overwhelming majority of the lipsticks fell below that threshold. But two exceeded it, Maybelline’s “Pink Petal” and L’Oreal’s Colour Riche “Volcanic” lipstick. The California attorney general’s office has taken no further action so far.