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Swear Off Cosmetics Until We Are Sure They Are Safe

by Susan CampbellHartford Courant
October 17th, 2007

If you've wandered into a CVS lately and stood before the wall of lipsticks, the choices can be daunting.

Add this to the mix: That lipstick - Incredifull Lipcolor Maximum Red, Colour Riche Classic Wine - may contain lead, the same element that moved Mattel to recall all those toys recently. Lead can cause learning, language and behavioral problems. It attacks the nervous system and has been linked to miscarriage and infertility, hormonal changes and menstrual irregularities. You don't want it anywhere near you, and certainly not on your mouth.

A study, from Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, found that 61 percent of the lipsticks they tested contained measurable amounts of lead. How much doesn't really matter. Lead is lead, and it's damaging at the smallest level. And since so many lipstick consumers are young women in their child-bearing years, the finding is even more troublesome. Children and pregnant women are particularly susceptible to lead's damaging effects.

Dr. Mark Mitchell, founder and president of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice, said the government sets limits for lead in lipstick colorants, but not for the finished product. The Food and Drug Administration doesn't have the same authority over cosmetics as it does food, but an FDA spokeswoman said recently the government will look into this latest study.

According to the study, the tested lipsticks were bought in September in stores in Hartford, Boston, San Francisco and Minneapolis. Industry reaction, from John Bailey, a spokesman with the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, was swift. Lead is not intentionally added to cosmetics, he said. It's a naturally occurring element, he said, and despite meeting government standards of lead levels in colorants, the industry continues to strive to lower lead levels in their products.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, a mother's lipsticked kiss shouldn't be dangerous. There is no safe level of lead in the human body, said Mitchell. Lead-free lipstick is entirely possible, so why subject consumers to any exposure?

It is shockingly easy to find toxicants in cosmetics, according to Stacy Malkan, author of "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry." Lead isn't the only dangerous substance found in personal-care products, she said. The U.S. government, in the form of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pushed the point with a 2000 study on phthalates, or substances used in making plastic in consumer goods, like cosmetics. The Environmental Protection Agency says that phthalates adversely affect hormones, cause reproductive and genital defects, may lower sperm count and increase the risk of testicular cancer. Earlier this month, California banned their use in products for young children; other states may follow.

For Mitchell, this is an environmental-justice issue. Most Connecticut children who test high for lead in their bodies are black or Latino, he said. That's from a combination of factors, including old leaded paint and contaminated soil around the highways near their homes. No one knows if lipstick is a significant contributor, he said, but wouldn't that make sense?

Malkan says bad science permeates the American beauty industry, and that's an important point. It's an industry, and to survive, it must respond to market demands. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics wants the industry to get the lead out. They want the FDA to strictly monitor personal-care products before those products hit the market.

But changes like that take time. Meanwhile, consumers can move things along. We can step away from poisons and swear off cosmetics until we know they're safe. Let's start with lipstick.

For more information on the study, see www.safecosmetics.org.