I’m going to give you the punchline right up front: no company is actively adding lead or other heavy metals to their products. Unlike some nasty ingredients like formaldehyde or phthalates, heavy metals are unintentional contaminants in many color cosmetics (and to a lesser degree skin care products).
So is it possible to have a lead-free lipstick? Not really. But it’s also impossible to have lead-free protein powder, or rice, or other naturally derived products and foods.
I recently wrote a recap of a study published by Consumer Reports which examined lead, arsenic and other heavy metals in children’s food. The conclusions were both hopeful and sobering, there are steps we can take as consumers, but there are also limits to companies being perfect or heavy metal free. The same holds true for cosmetic companies, so as a long time public health advocate, I think we need to be realistic about what we expect companies can achieve while also pressing them to do better.
Here is what I hope and expect the beauty industry will do to better address lead in lipstick and other products:
Screen and test for heavy metals
Most beauty brands rely on their manufacturing partners (the people who actually formulate and mix the product) and their raw ingredient suppliers to be in compliance with industry guidelines. The current industry guidelines says that no more than 10ppm of lead should be in a raw material. So most companies trust that their suppliers are in compliance (keep in mind lead in cosmetics isn’t formally regulated so this is just a voluntary guideline). The problem with this is 10ppm of lead is too high. Companies must test their products and raw materials themselves to understand what levels of heavy metals are found in their products.
Set health protective limits based on best available science
Since it’s impossible for food or beauty companies to be heavy metal free, they should set their own heavy metal limits, aiming to be much lower than current federal guidance. Testing products either frequently or systematically can be part of the regular quality assurance process. Just like companies test every batch of products for microbial contamination.
Make sure third party labs and testing equipment is sensitive enough to be helpful in reducing heavy metal exposure
Whenever I see headlines about products being tested (and believe me, I have tested a LOT of products in my career), I always want to know what the detection limits are for the equipment. Using high detection limits is a trick that can create falsely positive results. For example, if the detection limit is 10ppm for a test, anything less than 10ppm will appear on the test as “non-detect”, and then some companies claim to be lead-free. Whereas other tools are more sensitive and test at low limits like .1ppm, this gives the company a much better reading and understanding.
Should companies be required to share test results with consumers?
For as much of a transparency nut as I can be, I honestly don’t think companies should have to share results with the public and here’s why. If a company is doing proper testing, it’s very hard to send a consumer test results relevant to their particular batch or “lot”. Sometimes companies have a few studies that they share publicly but it’s not product or batch specific. Given the nature of heavy metals, they are distributed throughout the natural earth in uneven ways. So sending me a result for a different batch isn’t relevant. I also think given the varied types of testing equipment, as mentioned above, the results could easily say “non-detect”.
On the flip side, given the litigious society we live in, there is a huge risk for companies who would have over results showing lead in their products, at any level, even if they are a leader in their category.
As we saw with the responses from baby food companies to the Consumer Reports study, I think it’s important for businesses to be honest about heavy metals being possible in their products while sharing what they do publicly.
In the meantime, get out into the marketplace and ask tough questions while still understanding the complexity of the issue. I think we must push the market while being reasonable with what we’re asking for.
Who’s with me?