Heavy Metals, Insects and Other Weird Things Found in Lipstick Through Time

From seaweed and beetles to lead and synthetic chemicals, lipstick has seen its share of strange—and dangerous—components

The creamy sticks of color
The creamy sticks of color seen here are just the latest in a long history of lipsticks—historical records suggest that humans have been artificially coloring their lips since 4,000 B.C. Photo by Flickr user ookikioo

Lipstick has seen a fair share of funky ingredients in its long history of more than 6,000 years, from seaweed and beetles to modern synthetic chemicals and deer fat. In recent years, traces of lead have been found in numerous brands of the popular handbag staple, prompting some manufacturers to go the organic route. This week, more dangerous substances joined the roster.

Researchers at Berkeley’s School of Public Health at the University of California tested 32 different types of lipstick and lip gloss commonly found in the brightly lit aisles of grocery and convenience stores. They detected traces of cadmium, chromium, aluminum, manganese and other metals, which are usually found in industrial workplaces, including make-up factories. The report, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, indicated that some of these metals reached potentially health-hazardous levels.

Lipstick is usually ingested little by little as wearers lick or bite their lips throughout the day. On average, the study found, lipstick-clad women consume 24 milligrams of the stuff a day. Those who reapply several times a day take in 87 milligrams.

The researchers estimated risk by comparing consumers’ daily intake of these metals through lip makeup with health guidelines. They report that an average use of some lipsticks and lip glosses results in “excessive exposure” to chromium, and frequent use can lead to overexposure to aluminum, cadmium and manganese.

Minor exposure to cadmium, which is used in batteries, can result in flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills and achy muscles. In the worst cases, the metal is linked to cancer, attacking the cardiovascular, respiratory and other systems in the body. Chromium is a carcinogen linked to stomach ulcers and lung cancer, and aluminum can be toxic to the lungs. Long-term exposure to manganese in high doses is associated with problems in the nervous system. There are no safe levels of chromium, and federal labor regulations require industrial workers to limit exposure to the metal in the workplace. We naturally inhale tiny levels of aluminum present in the air, and many FDA-approved antacids contain the metal in safe levels.

Despite the presence of these metals in lipstick, there’s no need to start abandoning lipstick altogether—rather, the authors call for more oversight when it comes to cosmetics, for which there are no industry standards regulating their metal content if produced in the United States.

After all, cadmium and other metals aren’t an intended ingredient in lipstick—they’re considered a contaminant. They seep into lipstick when the machinery or dyes used to create the product contain the metals themselves. This means trace amounts are not listed on the tiny stickers on lipstick tubes, so there’s no way to know which brands might be contaminated.

Concern about metals in cosmetics came to the forefront of American media in 2007, when an analysis of 33 popular brands of lipstick by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics showed that 61 percent of them contained lead. The report eventually led the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which doesn’t regulate cosmetics, to look into the issue, and what it found wasn’t any better: it found lead in all of the samples tested, with levels four times higher than the earlier study, ranging from 0.09 parts per million to 3.06 parts per million. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe level of lead for humans.

So we’ve got cadmium, chromium, aluminum, manganese and lead in our lipstick. What else? Today, most lipstick is made with beeswax, which creates a base for pigments, and castor oil, which gives it a shiny, waxy quality. Beeswax has been the base for lipstick for at least 400 years–England’s Queen Elizabeth I popularized a deep lip rouge derived from beeswax and plants.

Lipstick as we know it appeared in 1884 in Paris, wrapped in silk paper and made from beeswax, castor oil and deer tallow, the solid rendered fat of the animal. At the time, lipstick was often colored using carmine dye. The dye combined aluminum and carminic acid, a chemical produced by cochineals–tiny cacti-dwelling insects–to ward off other insect predators.

That early lipstick wasn’t the first attempt at using insects or to stain women’s mouths. Cleopatra’s recipe for homemade lipstick called for red pigments drawn out from mashed-up beetles and ants.

But really, any natural substance with color was fair game for cosmetics, regardless of its health effects: Historians believe women first starting coloring their lips in ancient Mesopotamia, dotting them with dust from crushed semi-precious jewelsthese lovely ancients were eating tiny bits of rocks whenever they licked their lips. Ancient Egyptians used lip color too, mixing seaweed, iodine and bromine mannite, a highly toxic plant-derived chemical that sickened its users.

From mannite to heavy metals, humanity’s quest for painted beauty doesn’t seem to have progressed far from toxic roots. The sacrifices we make for fashion!

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