Is your lipstick killing you?

Post 1361 of 1734
  • The shade cannot be removed easily.

  • Your lips suddenly turn dark or develop a rash.

  • The skin of your lips starts peeling or feels dry.

There’s a reason why little girls are not allowed to wear lipsticks. It is the presence of lead in lipstick along with other harmful toxic metals. Should you dump your fave shade or find a middle path? Jayeeta Mazumder finds out

A few weeks ago, my friend sent me a picture of her two-year-old daughter holding up an expensive lipstick with an infectious, happy grin. The caption read: ‘My First Red Lipstick’. I found the picture slightly perturbing. I wasn’t sure if my friend understood the implications of ‘gifting’ lipsticks to her child. Would she really let her use it? I quickly sent her a response stating my concerns. The debate around lipsticks containing lead and other harmful chemicals has never really died down. But the amount of lead we consume or ingest every day has become a topic of national debate since the recent Maggi debacle. And it seems there’s no escaping it—from your tap water to your wall paint to the toys you pacify kids with, everything contains lead, according to most reports. Whether you were dissing the theory or subscribing to it, lead poisoning became a real fear. My friend, however, seemed unperturbed. She assured me that she’d only allow her to use it on ‘occasions’.

I recalled the time my mother had to lock away all her lipsticks because she was worried that the harmful chemicals in them could affect me. I was 12, and wearing her lipstick had temporarily become my favourite pastime. I’d try on a shade every time she stepped out, and she was blissfully unaware until my sister snitched on me one unlucky evening. For the most part of my teenage years, I went without lipstick. Today, I wear it often—matte, creamy, glossy, shiny, sparkly… the whole gamut out there. No lipstick lists lead as an ingredient and, for a long time, nobody bothered reading the descriptions on the packaging. But recent studies on the toxins found in lipsticks are disconcerting enough to make you ponder over that rich plum shade you’re wearing to work every day.

Researchers reason that all lipsticks contain a hint of lead. That, however, may not be the only villain in your favourite shade. Studies have pointed to a wide range of lipstick brands containing as many as eight other metals. In the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, Dr Katharine Hammond, professor of environmental health, noted that she had found traces of cadmium, cobalt, aluminium, titanium, manganese, chromium, copper and nickel in 24 lip glosses and eight lipstick brands. She was quoted as saying: “Treat lipstick as something dangerous, because if children eat it, we are talking about a comparatively large level of metals going into a small body.” I finally understood my mother’s concerns. My own worry about my friend’s child’s fascination with lipstick didn’t seem completely baseless. But what sort of danger are we really looking at?

Ditch your lipstick if...

The shade cannot be removed easily.
Your lips suddenly turn dark or develop a rash.
The skin of your lips starts peeling or feels dry.


Aluminium is added to lipsticks as a stabiliser and titanium oxide as a whitening agent, softening reds into pinks. Glittery lip glosses contain mica, a naturally occurring mineral, to add shine. Mica routinely contains metals like lead, manganese, chromium and aluminium. Reports suggest that the more intense lip colours may carry more metals due to contamination in pigments.


If facts are anything to go by, the presence of lead and other toxins in lipsticks can cause serious
health risks. According to researchers, chromium is a known human carcinogen, which has been linked to lung cancer and stomach tumours, either through inhaling or swallowing it. Cadmium is another carcinogen that could damage the respiratory system when inhaled. “Lead has always been considered a problem metal. And how can it not be? It is normally used in the making of batteries, paints and toys,” points out Dr Rakesh Tandon, medical director and HOD of Gastroenterology, PSRI Hospital, Delhi. He stresses that lead dust is quite dangerous and it’s almost unavoidable if you are exposed to cosmetics, toys, jewellery, ceramics and even water and air. “Lead can cause severe abdominal pain, especially in children. Pregnant women are at a higher risk from the metals in lipsticks, which may cause neurological and cognitive problems for the developing foetus, like irritability or a slower learning process. Overexposure to lipsticks could even be damaging to the kidneys. What’s also disturbing is that aluminium is universally used in lipsticks and glosses.” It’s safe to deduce that very few lipsticks are actually lead-free. Dr Tandon, however, admits that it boils down to how much exposure you have to these metals.“Women who wear lipsticks daily, retouch it more than 10 times a day, should be very careful. Some amount of those harmful metals does get absorbed over a period of time and leads to lead accumulation in the system. Even small amounts going in for a long period of time can be a cause for concern.” Dr Jaishree Sharad, renowned Mumbai-based cosmetic dermatologist, echoes
the thought. “Lead is a neurotoxin and can damage the nervous system. But the quantity of lead in lipsticks is less than the normal range that can harm you.

Interestingly, even though medical experts are of the opinion that there is no safe level of lead in the blood, the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration)doesn’t consider the lead levels it found in lipsticks to be a safety issue. The FDA ran extensive tests in 2008, and found traces of lead in 400 lipstick shades. In India, in 2010, the CERC (Consumer Education and Research Centre) tested 43 varieties of lipstick and three varieties of lip gloss and found the presence of toxic lead in them. The limit set by the Bureau of Indian Standards for lead in cosmetics is 20 ppm (parts per million) at the most. Parts per million is a way of expressing very dilute concentrations of substances and, in this case, 1 ppm is equivalent to 1 milligram of a certain substance per litre of water. In CERC’s report, of the 16 varieties of brown lipsticks tested, 13 had lead content higher than 10 ppm, some going up to 25 ppm. When the test results were sent to the manufacturers, some disputed them, while some, astonishingly enough, chose not to respond. CERC recommended prohibition of colours containing lead used in cosmetics, lowering of the limit of permissible lead content, making it mandatory for manufacturers to display the list of ingredients, and suggested making certain amendments to the Drugs and Cosmetics Rules. Dr Rashmi Shetty, renowned Mumbai-based cosmetic physician, warns, “One must be wary if one is used to wearing lipstick every day. Reds and darker colours have the most amount of metals. The habit of licking, retouching or wearing long-lasting shades can have adverse effects.”

One may argue that the quantity of metals present in lipsticks is too little to harm us, and that there are more toxins in the air that we breathe and the water that we consume. Sure enough, there are reams of reports to back those claims as well. Makeup artist Clint Fernandes reasons, “A few usages will not kill you. But if you notice rashes, irritation, blackness or flaking of your lips, you need to immediately stop using the product that’s causing it all. Watch out for these basic indicators. Sadly, there is no official list of harmful chemicals to refer to, so you need to be aware of the fact that excessive amount of paraben, chemicals and stabilisers is carcinogenic. Several brands use them to stabilise long-lasting shades.” But Clint also emphasises that cosmetics can rarely cause irreversible damage. He advises lipstick lovers to always wear a good moisturising agent as a first layer. “It acts as a barrier and minimises the harmful effects to a great extent.” Dr Sharad tells us that even so-called natural lipsticks aren’t really natural. Awareness is the key to one’s well-being. “Avoid long-lasting, matte lipsticks that do not come off easily. Follow a good lip-care routine at home and do not re-touch repeatedly.” There’s no denying that lead builds up in the body over a long time and that deadly red shade you’re currently crushing on might just be a silent killer. Experts unanimously urge women to tread carefully, wear lipstick with a base and use it moderately.


Apply milk cream on your lips every night in order to hydrate and lighten dark lips.
Brown sugar can be used as a lip scrub.
Olive oil and honey can be used to moisturise the lips.


Avoid applying lipstick more than twice a day.
Don’t lick your lips or retouch your lipstick too much.
Don’t wear dark, matte shades regularly.