Public Science: Lead in Lipstick

I’m seeing a lot of activity about Deborah Blum’s interesting article on the hazardous metals used in lipsticks. The article has been shared widely in my circles and certainly got me engaged. Having just read Johnathan Chung’s statistical critique of the studies below, there is more to think about.

After first reading Blum’s article, I went back to the research published in Environmental Health Perspectives. I was initially struck by the methodology, where the researchers measured the impact of metals in lipsticks using comparisons to metals in water consumption. They did this because the materials used in lipsticks are not regulated in the USA. Blum notes that manufacturers have shown that they can manipulate the levels of these metals when they want to. I commented on Gaythia Weis’ post that these findings represent a powerful argument against self-regulation by industry. I think this comment stands, however, Chung argues that the sample and statistics overstate their case. It doesn’t change the fact that the metals used are dangerous, but Chung notes that the ingredients need to be put into statistical perspective and in context of how they are used. We don’t drink lipstick and our bodies don’t absorb these metals to the extent being reported.

The broader issue that I see arising from Blum and Chung’s analyses is that ordinary consumers are often unaware of the properties used in everyday products. While many of us have read other articles that warn about the dangerous compounds in make-up, new studies lead to a new wave of concern. The public is hungry for scientific guidance on how to respond to conflicting research. For these reasons, I love seeing scientists engaging with research in public forums, as both Blum and Chung have done.

3 thoughts on “Public Science: Lead in Lipstick

  1. As you know, I am not an expert, but I’m glad it provided additional insight (not sure this counts as scientific guidance, but whatever encourages further thinking and discussion is good in my opinion).

    Lead content needs to be monitored and minimized where possible, but people may believe they are receiving more than they really are and may not recognize dose is something to consider too. Either way, it’s good to be informed so that if someone wants to choose to stop using lipstick for this reason, they can make that decision for themselves.

    As Blum quoted Dr. Hammond, it’s not a reason to panic, but it’s better to be aware of it. I’ve also only singled out lead here, but it makes sense to find out how much other metals contribute to contamination and what that risk translates to healthwise. If we don’t measure it, we won’t know.

    When people talk about risk, they don’t talk about “good” risk — they make decisions based on “acceptable” risk. In the same manner, there is no “good” amount of lead, but the existing lead content is also worth putting into perspective based on dose and where else you might get more lead from if overall health is the main concern.

    It’s also worth noting that things change, so an analysis at one time point is unlikely to be valid forever or account for every niche case. Data and a single analysis may not be widely applicable. For example, maybe in a year a specific company unknowingly through a new manufacturing process introduces significantly more lead. Things need to be evaluated on a case by case basis, and I wouldn’t generalize that occurrence to all make-up. That’s why it could seem conflicting, because in some cases it may be ok and in others not ok. It’s not hard and fast. Another source of conflict is that different people have different standards, values, and thresholds for what they consider acceptable in “gray area” situations that are hard to measure or interpret. Another reason research may be conflicting is because there actually may not be a clear answer yet.

    Anyway, my analysis is not as much of a statement on whether lipstick as a small source of lead is “ok” but rather to introduce context.


  2. in the context of the research, teenagers reapplying lipstick frequently thru the day – the acceptable risk would be at a much lower concentration, than for me, who uses lipstick a few times in a week. It would be good to have support for a label on lipstick ‘this is acceptable risk if used 4 times a day’


  3. Thanks! This is really helpful background. And I would also like to see much better labels on cosmetics, maybe a recommendation as you suggest, or better ingredients or information about country of origin. I have two sisters in their 50s, by the way, and both apply lipstick about ten times a day!


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