You’ve all heard the scary stories about lead in lipstick and, yes, it’s true that most brands of lipstick contain lead. But do they contain enough lead to pose a hazard to your health? Let’s find out with the Beauty Brains “Lead in Lipstick” calculator. (References for each data point are included if you want to look up any of this for yourself.)
Question: How much lead is added to your body from lipstick?
Fact 1. How much lead is in your brand of lipstick?
Let’s assume the worst case scenario: the brand/shade with the highest lead content is Maybelline Pink Petal with 7.19 mcg/g (that’s micrograms of lead per gram of lipstick. A microgram is 1/1,000,000 of a gram or about 1/28,000,000 of an ounce.) You can also think of it this way: one microgram is like a single ant swimming in a pool the size of Central Park.
Fact 2. How many times a day do you apply lipstick?
We’ll assume five applications per day which is fairly heavy use. (http://www.snopes.com/science/stats/lipstick.asp)
Fact 3. How much lipstick is deposited on your lips per application?
A tube of lipstick weighs about 3 grams which will provide about 400 applications. Therefore a single application delivers about 7.3 micrograms to your lips. (http://www.snopes.com/science/stats/lipstick.asp)
Fact 4. How much of that lipstick do you swallow during the day?
We know that much of your lipstick ends up on napkins, coffee cups, and body parts but again let’s use the worst case scenario and assume that ALL the lipstick you apply to your lips is swallowed.
Based on these calculations the absolute most lead you could swallow from lipstick is about 0.3 micrograms per day. (For most people it will far less than that.) Is that much lead bad? Read on.
Question: Is 0.3 micrograms of lead a dangerous amount to swallow?
Fact 1. How much of that lead gets into your blood?
The lead in lipstick is tied up in the color pigments and it takes a very strong chemical reaction (using hydrofluoric acid) to release the lead so it can be absorbed into your blood. So, in reality, a large portion of the lead you swallow doesn’t get into your blood at all, it passes right through your body. (One reference says your body only absorbs about 10% of the lead you swallow) But, once again, let’s assume the worst case and figure that 100% of the lead you swallow stays in your body. So that means your daily lipstick use will add 0.3 micrograms of lead to your blood. (Hepp, N.M.., “Determination of Total Lead in 400 Lipsticks on the U.S. Market Using a Validated Microwave-Assisted Digestion, Inductively Coupled Plasma–Mass Spectrometric Method,” Journal of Cosmetic Science, accepted for publication in May/June, 2012, issue and http://www.lecbiz.com/serv02.htm)
Fact 2. How much lead is normally in your body?
Even though you hear that there is no safe level of lead, every healthy adult has some amount of lead in their blood from drinking water, foods, and the environment. According to the CDC, the average healthy adult person has 1.4 micrograms per deciliter of blood. That means an average woman (130 pounds, 5 feet 6 inches) will have a total of 53.5 micrograms of lead in her blood. Therefore, the additional 0.3 micrograms from your daily lipstick usage will increase the total amount of lead in the average person’s blood from 53.5 micrograms to 53.8. (http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/ables/pdfs/ABLES_EBLL_050112.pdf) and http://easycalculation.com/medical/blood-volume.php)
Fact 3. How much lead is dangerous?
While this is a controversial point the CDC says that for non-pregnant adults the total Blood Lead Level (or BLL) should be below 10 mcg/dl which is a total of 382 mcg in an average person’s blood. If the BLL is above 382 mcg, then the CDC recommends you seek medical treatment. As you can see, going from 53.5 mcg to 53.8 mcg doesn’t put you anywhere near that limit. The average person would have to ingest an additional 328 micrograms of lead in a single day to cross this threshold. It would take 15 tubes of lipstick to give you that much lead! (http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/ables/description.html)
Based on the calculations used above, you’d have to EAT 15 entire tubes of lipstick in a single day to elevate your blood lead level to the point where the CDC would say it’s necessary to take action. Obviously the small amount of lead you swallow from lipstick each day presents very little risk.
Question: So one day’s worth of lipstick lead is fine but you wear lipstick everyday. Does lead build up over time?
Fact 1. How much lead are you taking in every day from lipstick?
We’ve just shown that in the worst case scenario lipstick adds an extra 0.3 micrograms of lead to your blood every day.
Fact 2. How much lead does your body get rid of every day?
Studies have shown that every day your body can get rid of about 35 mcg.(mostly through urine and feces.) (http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2526&context=opendissertations and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC333178/pdf/jcinvest00644-0006.pdf)
Lipstick doesn’t cause any buildup of lead in your blood over time because you’re only taking in about 1/100 of what your body removes.
The Beauty Brains bottom line
Even assuming you’re a heavy lipstick user, the amount of lead from your daily lipstick usage only raises your blood lead level by a very small amount. Over time your body excretes far more lead than you take in from lipstick. Lead poisoning from other sources IS a serious problem (especially for children) but non-pregnant adults don’t need to worry about getting lead poisoning from lipstick.
Final note: we’re cosmetic chemists, not toxicologists, and we invite anyone with additional knowledge on this subject to check our numbers and assumptions. We’ll gladly update this article if new information comes to light.