Spring is right around the corner, inspiring us to reach for bright colors, not just in the closet, but in cosmetic aisles, too. But every time you slather a flash of color across your lips, you could be applying an alarming dose of lead to your mouth, a part of the body where the heavy metal is easily absorbed and ingested. In fact, a new report found lead contamination in cosmetics is more widespread than previously thought—400 lipsticks tested positive for the brain-damaging contaminant, with L'Oreal lipsticks being the worst offenders.
The lead—which isn't listed on the ingredient breakdown—could be coming from the colorant or another contaminated ingredient, explains Stacy Malkan, cofounder of Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry (New Society Publishers, 2007). Short of sending the lipstick to a lab for lead testing, there's not much consumers can do to avoid it (besides just not wear it).
"It shouldn't be this hard for consumers to avoid toxic products," Malkan says. "That's why we need to update the 1938 cosmetic regulations and give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority and resources to ensure the safety of cosmetics," she adds, referring to the outdated 75-year-old law that the FDA uses to monitor safety in the beauty industry.
When it comes to cosmetics, lead is just one thing to watch out for. Many of the complex chemicals used in makeup have never been tested for long-term impacts on human health before being introduced to the market. And these routine exposures to harmful makeup chemicals could be harming the health of millions of people whose only crime is trying to look cuter. "The average woman uses a dozen personal care products every day containing more than 180 chemicals, so the toxic exposures are adding up," explains Malkan.
Malkan says she avoids products that contain any of the following substances because they indicate that the company is not doing the best job it can to formulate the safest products.
To look your best without wrecking your health, learn how to avoid these 5 toxic ingredients commonly used in cosmetics.
If a cosmetic product's ingredients info lists "fragrance" or "parfum" as an ingredient, you might want to put it right back on the store shelf. These terms are catchall phrases that can indicate any of thousands of different chemicals, including some linked to asthma, allergies, hormone disruption, and even infertility. "The best advice is that simpler is better," Malkan says. "Choose products with fewer chemicals, avoid synthetic fragrance, and use fewer products overall, especially on kids and while pregnant."
Parabens, preservative chemicals that have been linked to breast cancer, can be found in 70 to 90 percent of cosmetics, according to The David Suzuki Foundation, an organization that focuses on sustainability and health. Parabens are readily absorbed by the skin, and may even interfere with a man's reproductive system. Avoid any ingredient with "paraben" in the word, including methylparaben.
Triclosan is an antimicrobial chemical linked to thyroid damage and partially blamed for the rise in hard-to-kill superbugs like MRSA. It's a common ingredient in antimicrobial soaps, but some cosmetic companies sneak it into lipstick and other products, too. Look for triclosan on ingredient labels, and particularly on labels making claims of being antimicrobial or germ free.
4. Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives
Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen, something you definitely don't want to be applying to your body. The problem is, many common preservatives in cosmetics and personal care products mix with other ingredients and start releasing formaldehyde. Ingredients like DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, quaternium-15, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate should be avoided; doing so will protect you from formaldehyde exposure.
5. Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Other PEG Compounds
Sodium laureth sulfate is a foaming agent used in shampoos and facial scrubs and to help your skin absorb lotions and other cosmetics. It's commonly contaminated with potential and proven cancer causers like 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide, and products listed as PEG or polyethylene glycol often face carcinogenic contamination problems. Used in many cream-based cosmetics and as moisture carriers, other PEG ingredients should be avoided whenever possible.
When you shop, use these easy ways to find safer cosmetics and avoid the nasty stuff:
• Befriend this detailed database. This website will change your life, and for the better. Search Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep cosmetics database to check the safety of your current products, and to seek out safer products. Malkan recommends opting for products with scores ranging from 0 to 2, the safest picks. In addition, look for the Campaign for Safer Cosmetics' Champion Companies, organizations that pledge to disclose all ingredients and to avoid chemicals banned in other countries.
• Do your homework when it comes to "natural" makeup. For food to be labeled organic, farmers and food manufacturers need to follow strict laws. That's not yet true in the cosmetics industry, meaning there aren't regulations to keep products from using label terms like "natural" or "organic" when they actually contain harmful ingredients. The exception? If you see an actual USDA organic logo on a personal care product, it does indicate it has been made following strict organic standards. Without that logo, you should still read ingredient labels thoroughly and investigate the product on the Skin Deep database.
• Look for less-tainted lipstick. With the latest proof that many lipsticks contain lead, be particularly wary of this type of makeup. "Lead builds up in the body over time and lead-containing lipstick applied several times a day, every day, can add up to significant exposure levels," explains Mark Mitchell, MD, MPH, policy advisor of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice and cochair of the Environmental Health Task Force for the National Medical Association.
Check the FDA lead-in-lipstick test results to look for brands with lower levels. As an added measure, you can call your favorite brand's manufacturer and ask if the company has a policy in place to protect against lead contamination in cosmetic products.