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Is lead in lipstick dangerous? Episode 54

In this “lost episode” Perry and I explain EXACTLY why you don’t need to worry about lead in your lipstick.

Show notes

Question of the week: 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.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Eileen October 28, 2014, 11:01 am

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! This post should be required reading for every fear-mongering, harbinger-of-doom out there. We should all be conscious of what we expose our bodies to, but the irrational fear that is often stirred up by the alarmists has no place taking up residence in the rational and well-informed mind. As for those people who simply want to know, “Is my lipstick safe?”, your post, with its clear and logical progression, should put their minds at ease. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and apply my lipstick before heading out 🙂

  • Shilpa Gandotra October 28, 2014, 11:14 pm

    Good to see a nice compilation of facts!

  • SALLY October 31, 2014, 7:17 am


  • Christopher October 31, 2014, 10:05 pm

    Great episode guys.
    I find it peculiar how people firmly believe that lipstick is poisonous but they’re willing to be guinnie pigs for untested stuff. Like electronic cigarettes which is new trend here. To my knowledge there hasn’t been any extensive studies or research papers published on this topic. This is obviously not beauty related but it’s interesting to see where people choose to put their foot down and where they are more relaxed. Hope I made sense.

  • Keri February 17, 2015, 8:35 pm

    Great work! Please note however that minor prenatal lead exposure remains an issue, particularly as more than 50% of US pregnancies are unplanned and first-trimester exposure is riskiest. See Geng et al. 2014, or Lanphear et al. 2005 (“sufficient evidence to eliminate childhood lead exposure by banning all nonessential uses of lead”.) Thanks!

  • Aspsusa April 8, 2015, 4:17 am

    Nice breakdown of why lead isn’t a problem in cosmetics. The only thing I thought your discussion lacked was pointing out that lead in pigments used in lipstick are _contaminants_. When you talked about different shades having more or less I felt this muddied the issue a bit.

    I work with art materials, so am familiar with pigments, and I am quite certain that no lead-based pigment would ever be used in cosmetics. The few lead-based red pigments there are are extremely rare today.
    (BTW, which are the most common red pigments in cosmetics today? I’m guessing iron oxides and organic pigments, maybe some ultramarine pink?)

    Another point that could be raised to underscore the safety of minuscule lead contaminants in cosmetics would be the form of lead. I don’t know which form has been found in lipstick, but when it comes to traditional leaded pigments there are quite a bit of difference between them. The ones that are really nasty (can be absorbed through the skin) are not used today at all, and only historical curiosities, and really hard to find even as such.

    I’m trying to think about a way to get leadpoisoning from cosmetics, but apart from using ground up lead white pigment as face powder I can’t really see it.

  • Hilda June 24, 2016, 1:39 am

    What about pregnant woman?

    • Randy Schueller June 24, 2016, 7:08 am

      Fetuses don’t process lead the same way adults do so there is concern about pregnant women being exposed to additional lead from any source.

  • Isabell Judge October 26, 2016, 8:15 am

    I left a plug for this episode on USA Today’s website article about an environmental group saying that they found lead in kids Halloween make up… I heard it on the news and I am mediately had to leave a link for your show! But we know it’s the news so I doubt they’ll actually do any serious research on the topic when they can easily pick scary topics to bait people into watching their station