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There’s been a lot of buzz around lead in lipsticks lately, both in spas and out, and it’s made me not so much apprehensive as curious. Especially because I don’t leave the house without it…ever! Red lipstick has been my trademark for years and resorting to Carmex or lip balm is so not going to happen.

Women and men have been wearing lipstick in nearly every culture since the early Sumerians thousands of years ago. Interestingly, depending on the particular time and culture, the shade of lip colouring tagged you as a member of the elite, of the lower classes or even a prostitute. It was thought in Elizabethan times to possess lifesaving powers and Queen Elizabeth died with nearly half an inch of lip rouge on her lips.

So what’s the fuss about today? Back in 2009, prompted (or perhaps prodded) by allegations made by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics that the CSC had found unsafe levels of lead in lipsticks marketed in the U.S., the FDA tested the same 20 lipsticks and “found the lead levels present to be safe and well below limits recommended by international regulatory authorities.” Apparently, however, there was enough lingering doubt to compel the FDA to expand the study and in December 2011, the FDA hit the charts again with news of the lead levels in 400 lipsticks from across the board sold in the U.S.

There have been numerous reports throughout the media of the study’s findings – some of which make it sound like the FDA had just “discovered” lead content in lipsticks for the first time. It turns out that the lead is in the colorants used in lipstick’s manufacture that are limited by the FDA to maximum specified levels, typically no more than 20 parts per million (ppm) for color additives approved for use in cosmetics. They have been in use for years.

According to Halyna Breslawec, Chief Scientist for the Personal Care Products Council, “FDA found trace levels of lead in various lipsticks ranging from 0.026 to 7.19 ppm and averaging 1.11 ppm. Using lipstick containing lead at this level would result in exposure 1000 times less than from daily consumption of water meeting EPA drinking water standards.”

Some stories have reported that lipstick contains more lead than candy. Whaaaat? Candy? Believe it or not, the FDA has a recommended upper limit for lead in candy of 0.1 ppm. Did you know that? And candy is meant to be completely ingested, as opposed to lipstick that is meant to be applied topically with limited absorption and only minimal ingestion (although Horst Rechelbacher once commented that the average woman consumes 4 pounds of lipstick during her lifetime—and not surprisingly, teenage boys are said to consume the highest quantities of lipstick).

Does the lead build up in the human body? Yes it can and does, but since lead is present in water, dirt, lead pipes, soldering on canned goods from foreign countries, old lead-based paints and elsewhere besides lipsticks, I’m surprised I haven’t shown signs of lead poisoning before now. I’m not making light of the concerns put forth by those calling for a ban on any lead on lipsticks, but since the human body excretes most of the lead it comes in contact with, I’m going to trust the FDA and my favorite spa to keep me real.

Having said that, please do check out the FDA website listing of those lipsticks with higher concentrations of lead and avoid them while the FDA comes up with permissible upper limits of the element. In the meantime, you might want to look at the candy you’re eating.