Lead in Lipstick, Lead in Water: Do Women Need to Worry?
When we think of potentially dangerous ingredients in the products we buy at the store, we usually think of contaminants in food products, like E. coli and salmonella. We often hear about outbreaks of stomach illnesses, and recalls of items like eggs, raw spinach, ready-made salads, and even processed foods like Eggo waffles, some of which were recalled in 2016 because of possible listeria contamination.
We understand that sometimes mistakes happen, and bacteria get through. Tell a group of women that they need to be cautious of lead in lipstick, though, and you’re likely to get more than one confused look.
Lead? In lipstick? Is that even possible?
It’s so possible that the FDA recently issued a reminder to the beauty industry: limit lead in lipsticks and other cosmetics to 10 parts per million or less. Yes, the industry actually has to be reminded, because studies of lipsticks have shown some products to contain more than the recommended limit.
Add to this the recent reports of lead contamination in drinking water in areas like Flint, Michigan, and in 33 other cities across the nation, and you can’t help but wonder: should women be concerned about exposure to lead?
What is Lead?
Lead is a naturally occurring element found in the Earth’s crust. A soft, blue-gray metal, it also appears in small amounts in silver, zinc, copper, and ore, and is mined and smelted in areas across the country. It’s stable and resistant to corrosion, doesn’t conduct electricity, and helps shield against radiation.
Because of its many industry-friendly characteristics, lead has been widely used by humans for centuries. Even the ancient Romans used it for plumbing and other purposes. In modern times, we’ve used it in paint and gasoline, though it was removed from gasoline in the 1970s to protect public health, and banned from household paints about the same time. It’s still found in many other products today, though, including leaded pipes, airplane fuel, ceramics, solders, batteries, and ammunition. When it is released into the air from industrial sources, it can also travel long distances before settling onto the ground or into waterways.
Because we’ve used lead so much in all these products and more, and because it tends to accumulate in the environment, it is now widespread throughout the country. Studies have also found that it’s in our bodies, too, and that the levels found in people today are greater than the levels found in ancient times.
Lead comes in two forms:
- Organic lead compounds have lead combined with carbon and hydrogen. Organic lead is considered more dangerous than inorganic lead because the human body more readily absorbs it. It is used mostly in occupational settings.
- Inorganic lead compounds are combinations of lead with other elements. Examples include lead oxide and lead chloride. This is the type of lead found in old paint, soil, and other products, and is the type most often encountered in the environment today.
The main sources of lead contamination in our world include:
- Lead-based paints used in older homes built before 1978
- Contaminated soil
- Household dust
- Drinking water pumped through leaded pipes
- Lead crystal
- Lead-glazed pottery
- Some toys and inexpensive metal jewelry
Some cosmetics have also been found to contain more than the recommended upper limit of lead.
Why is Lead Dangerous?
When researching lead and its dangerous health effects, we usually read about children under the age of five, because they are more at risk from very small amounts of lead exposure. They also tend to put everything in their mouths, including paint chips, household dust, and lead-contaminated toys, and their digestive systems are said to absorb lead more readily than adult systems do.
Blood levels of less than 10 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dL)—and in some cases, even less than 5 ug/dL—have been linked with health issues like developmental problems, cognitive impairment (including loss of IQ points), attention problems, delayed puberty, hearing deficiencies, behavioral problems, and decreased academic achievement.
Adult women can suffer from lead exposure, too. Though they don’t tend to put contaminated materials in their mouths like children do, they may be exposed in the following ways:
- drinking water containing lead
- using dishes or glasses that contain lead
- breathing leaded dust because of lead-based paint that is deteriorating
- breathing leaded dust during renovation or repair work on an older home or building
- working at a job where lead is used, such as in mining, ironwork or welding, or construction
We now know that women may also be exposed via some cosmetics, like lipsticks.
Resulting health problems in adult women may include cardiovascular disease, nerve disorders, fertility issues, kidney problems, and high blood pressure. Pregnant women with blood levels of less than 5 ug/dL are at a higher risk of having reduced fetal growth in their unborn babies, and higher levels may lead to preterm labor, miscarriage, spontaneous abortion or stillbirth, and low birth weight.
How Much Lead is In Lipstick?
It was back in 2007 that the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a project of the Breast Cancer Fund, reported they’d found lead in lipsticks. The looked at 33 popular brands, and found that 61 percent of them contained lead, with levels ranging up to 0.65 parts per million (ppm). Some of the offenders included products from L’Oreal, Cover Girl, and Dior Addict.
That got the FDA’s attention, and in 2009 they released their own report. They expanded their tests to include not only lipsticks, but other cosmetics, including eye shadows, blushes, mascaras, foundations, powders, and the like.
Their results? They found lead in a total of 685 cosmetics on the market. That included all of the lipsticks tested, which showed levels ranging from 0.09 to 3.06 ppm. They followed up with another test, and released results in 2010. That study showed lead in 400 lipsticks, with the highest coming in at 7.19 ppm.
The FDA maintains that levels less than 10 ppm—99 percent of the products they tested came in under that level—are safe. In their report, they state, “We determined that exposure to 10 ppm lead from incidental ingestion of cosmetic lip products is very small and cannot be measured in routine blood testing.”
They added that exposure to lead from other cosmetic products is via the skin, and again is extremely small. They have issued a recent reminder to the industry, though, to be sure that all cosmetics contain no more than 10 ppm lead.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and other consumer watchdogs aren’t so sure about this. The problem is that women use these products over and over again for a period of many years, usually decades. Lead tends to accumulate in the human body, so even if we are exposed to very small amounts in a day, how much does that up to in a year?
So far, we just don’t know.
Lead in Water—Are You at Risk?
We all watched in sympathy as residents of Flint, Michigan did their best to deal with their toxic water crisis. The problem started when the city switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, to save money.
Soon after that, residents started complaining about the quality of the water. City officials assured them everything was fine, and it wasn’t until researchers from Virginia Tech conducted several in-home tests that the EPA got involved and the issue was taken seriously. In October 2015, the city switched back, but by then, several residents and their children had been exposed to lead and other toxins through their drinking water.
Turns out that about half the service lines to homes in Flint were made of lead. There are things you can do to the water to be sure the lead won’t leach into it, but officials failed to do that, and lead and iron leached into the water supply as a result. In January of 2016, President Obama declared a disaster in Flint, and authorized $5 million in aid to help install lead-free pipes throughout the city.
The rest of the nation mourned with the Flint community, and breathed a sigh of relief that the same thing wasn’t happening to them—until another report came out in mid-2016 stating that 33 other cities across 17 states had used water testing “cheats” that potentially concealed dangerous levels of lead. These cities were using tactics like pre-flushing (running the water for several minutes before taking a test to flush out any lead) to test the water—tactics that the EPA has warned against.
Some authorities also removed high-risk homes from testing to help obscure reports of high lead levels, and collected multiple samples, choosing the one with the lowest lead levels to report.
A recent article in the USA Today revealed that about 100,000 people get their drinking water from utilities that failed to treat water after they’d discovered high levels of lead, about 4 million drink water from small operators who don’t test properly, and about 850 small water utilities with a history of lead contamination have failed to properly test for lead at least once since 2010.
Other investigations revealed that about 2,000 water systems spanning all 50 states showed excessive levels of lead contamination in the previous four years.
In mid-2016, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) also reported that more than 18 million Americans got their drinking water from systems with lead violations in 2015.
What Can Women Do to Protect Their Families Against Lead Exposure?
Obviously these kinds of reports are concerning. The FDA, EPA, NRDC, and other organizations are working to improve water testing and reduce contamination. Tap water in the U.S. is still considered to be safe overall, and levels found in cosmetics are extremely low.
The fact remains, though, that exposure to heavy metals like lead is cumulative. We are exposed in many ways as we go throughout our days, and some of that lead is stored in the brain, liver, kidneys, bones, and teeth. The CDC estimates that adults typically absorb up to 20 percent of ingested lead, and most inhaled lead. “The body accumulates lead over a lifetime,” they say, “and normally releases it very slowly.”
In the interest of optimal health, we can take steps to help reduce our lifelong exposure, and help improve our health and the health of our families. Here are some steps you can take to limit the effects lead has on your life:
- Dust and vacuum frequently. Leave shoes at the door.
- Wash children’s toys often, especially the ones little toddlers put in their mouths. Watch out for old toys handed down in the family that may have lead-based paint or contain lead in the materials.
- If you have older plumbing containing lead pipes or fittings, run cold water for at least a minute before using to flush the lead out, or consider getting a filter that removes lead. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a handy guide to help you find the best water filter for your needs.
- If you have an older home with lead-based paint, regularly check for peeling and fix problems quickly. Painting over the old paint is usually recommended over removing it, as sanding can release lead into the dust and air. Check your home against the EPA’s “Lead Poisoning Home Checklist.”
- Avoid storing food in imported dishware and pottery that may be contaminated with lead.
- If someone in your household works in a lead-related occupation, remove work clothes and shoes before entering the home, and wash them separately from other clothes.
- Eat a healthy diet, and have your family do the same—people who eat healthy, nutritious foods absorb less lead into their bodies.
- Choose cosmetics from conscientious brands that are careful about their ingredients. Not all “natural” lipsticks are free of lead, so do your research. The EWG has a helpful list of lipsticks rated by their ingredients, manufacturing practices, and level of transparency. Then, consider cutting back on items like lipstick, especially if you reapply several times a day. Choose days during the week when you can go makeup-free. And don’t let your children play with your lipsticks or other cosmetics.
“Limiting Lead in Lipstick and Other Cosmetics,” FDA, December 21, 2016, http://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/productsingredients/products/ucm137224.htm.
Charles P. Pierce, “The Nation’s Poisonous Water Problem is Far Worse Than You Think,” Esquire, June 2, 2016, http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/politics/news/a45451/lead-water-crisis-33-cities/.
“Learn About Lead,” EPA, https://www.epa.gov/lead/learn-about-lead.
“Lead Toxicity: What is Lead?” CDC, August 25, 2016, https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=7&po=4.
“Lead in Lipstick,” Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/regulations/us-laws/lead-in-lipstick/.
Sara Ganim and Linh Tran, “How tap water became toxic in Flint, Michigan,” CNN, January 13, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/11/health/toxic-tap-water-flint-michigan/.
Oliver Milman and Jessica Glenza, “At least 33 U.S. cities used water testing ‘cheats’ over lead concerns,” The Guardian, June 2, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jun/02/lead-water-testing-cheats-chicago-boston-philadelphia.
Laura Ungar and Mark Nichols, “4 million Americans could be drinking toxic water and would never know,” USA Today, December 13, 2016, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2016/12/13/broken-system-means-millions-of-rural-americans-exposed-to-poisoned-or-untested-water/94071732/.
Margie Kelly, “How Safe is Your Drinking Water? NRDC Report Documents Widespread Lead Violations,” NRDC, [Press Release], June 28, 2016, https://www.nrdc.org/media/2016/160628.
“Lead Toxicity: What is the Biological Fate of Lead?” CDC, August 20, 2007, https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=7&po=9.