The practice of colouring one’s kisser has been around for thousands of years.

Did you know? The ancient Mesopotamian’s version of lipstick was a mixture of crushed red rocks and white lead.

The basic ingredients in today’s lipsticks are waxes, oils, pigments, and emollients. The wax gives the lipstick its shape and holds it together while oils give the lipstick a lighter texture. Pigments made from powdered dyes like iron oxides give the lipstick its colour. Emollients such as aloe vera and vitamin E have been added to lipsticks in recent years to keep your smile smooth and soft.

So what about lead? Lead is a malleable bluish-white metal and is used, for example, to prevent corrosion, shield against gamma and X-ray radiation (those stylish aprons you wear while getting your teeth X-rayed), and absorb vibrations. Countries such as Canada and the U.S. prohibit lead in cosmetics, including lipstick. However, impurities can be found in the raw materials used to make lipstick or can be acquired during the manufacturing process.

Did you know? Until the mid-1970s lead was widely used in paints in North America and can still be found in some older houses.

Lead is known to be toxic to humans and exposure can cause adverse health effects. According to Health Canada, low-level effects could include increased risk of developing kidney damage and disease, increases in blood pressure, anemia, reduced sperm count and fertility, and future risk of osteoporosis in exposed children. Lead has also been classified as “probably carcinogenic”, which means there’s enough evidence to show that prolonged exposure to lead can increase the risk of cancer.

Did you know? Lead poisoning was common in ancient Rome since lead was used to make cooking utensils and water pipes.

The American Food and Drug Administration has tested lead levels in lipstick and found concentrations ranging from 0.09 – 3.06 parts per million (ppm) (one ppm is equivalent to one cent in $10,000). These concentrations are well below Health Canada’s limit of 10 ppm for lead in products that are applied to skin. So, as long as you’re using lipstick properly – and not eating 10 tubes for breakfast – you are probably safe.

Read my lips: anytime you receive an email forward forewarning you of some hazard, be skeptical! Research some reputable sources before passing on the email and spreading the rumour. You might be saving someone some unwanted stress and a few tubes of lipstick.

Learn More!

Snopes.com - Easily Lead

Gunn, Fenja, “The Artificial Face: A History of Cosmetics”, David & Charles, 1973.

Hepp, N. M., Mindak, W. R., and Cheng, J., "Determination of Total Lead in Lipstick: Development and Single Lab Validation of a Microwave-Assisted Digestion, Inductively Coupled Plasma–Mass Spectrometric Method", Journal of Cosmetic Science, Vol. 60, No. 4, July/August, 2009.

Hernberg, Sven, “Lead Poisoning in a Historical Perspective”, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Vol. 38, 2000, pp 244-254.

American Cancer Society - Lead

Ragas, Meg Cohen; Kozlowski, Karen, “Read my Lips: A Cultural History of Lipstick”, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1998.

Article first published on April 9, 2010.

Amy MacDonald

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Alberta Centre for Toxicology located in the University of Calgary's Faculty of Medicine. My Ph.D. is in analytical chemistry and I am really enjoying applying that knowledge to the field of toxicology. In my free time I enjoy doing science outreach, running (training for a 10K right now), playing softball, and reading.


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