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Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard the red lipstick can be harmful to my health. Is that true?
– Sylvia Smith, Houston, TX

The Price of Red Lips
Metals and Other Toxins Are Found in Most Lipsticks
By Jennifer Santisi

As a child I intently watched my mother put on bright red lipstick every morning before work. Even when she didn’t use a mirror, her lipstick always looked flawless. Recently, my mother asked me about the ingredients in her favorite red lipstick. Throughout my toxicology and environmental health hazard courses, none of my professors had ever mentioned cosmetic ingredients aside from endocrine-disrupting compounds. I couldn’t answer the question - what’s hidden in lipstick and is it harmful to us?

Red lipstick is notorious for being the lipstick color with the highest prevalence of lead. But research shows that it’s not just limited to tubes of red. Researchers at the University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Health tested 32 different lipsticks and lip glosses commonly found in drugstores and department stores for nine metals. They found manganese, titanium, chromium, nickel and aluminum in practically every product, lead in 75% of them, and cadmium in nearly half.

The metals are used in processing lipstick and are used to generate the perfect lipstick shade. Prior studies have verified their existence in cosmetics; however, this study went one step further by analyzing the product’s risk based on consumers’ potential daily intake of the metals. The researchers explain that lipstick and lip gloss are of highest concern because they are ingested or absorbed by the wearer throughout the day. Guidelines were generated for average and high use of lip makeup based on usage data from a previous study. Average use is defined as daily ingestion of 24 milligrams of lipstick per day, while high use is set at 87 milligrams ingested per day for women who continuously put on lipstick throughout the day.

Using acceptable daily intakes of the metals, researchers found that average use of some lipsticks and lip glosses may result in excessive exposure to chromium, a carcinogen linked to stomach tumors. High use of lipsticks may result in overexposure of aluminum, cadmium and manganese. Long-term exposure to high concentrations of manganese has been linked with toxicity in the nervous system.

Going into this, I expected lead to come out at the top of the list. But, while lead was detected in 24 of the products, it was at a concentration that was generally below the acceptable daily intake level. Researchers do caution that children would still be at risk to low levels of lead in lipsticks, since no level of lead exposure is considered safe for their developing bodies. In other words, moms should think twice before letting their daughters play in their makeup drawer.

The researchers concluded that the levels of these metals are extremely low, and that further study is required. I was left feeling unsatisfied by that conclusion. Metals are by no means the only ingredients in lipstick that raise a red flag. Many lipsticks contain parabens, which are endocrine-disrupting compounds. Carmine is a popular ingredient in red lipstick, and is acquired by boiling a highly pigmented beetle, which may cause severe allergic reactions in some wearers.  Retinyl palmitate is a synthetic form of vitamin A that may be toxic to pregnant women, and limited research has linked exposure to it with cancer and reproductive effects.

Fortunately, there are many cosmetic companies that are adopting simpler ingredient lists. The Environmental Working Group started a cosmetic database many years ago, called Skin Deep, which has morphed into an extremely comprehensive resource for analyzing ingredients in cosmetic products.

In my quest for a better red lipstick, I came up with a few brand options including Bare Minerals, Josie Maran and Korres. Now my mother can feel better about the ingredients that she’s putting on her lips every day, and still look just as glamorous.

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Dear EarthTalk: I’m concerned about toxic ingredients in my cleaning supplies, especially now that I have young children. Where can I find safer alternatives?  —Betsy E., Hartford, CT

It is true that many household cleaners contain potentially toxic substances, so parents especially should make an effort to keep them out of the reach of children or, better yet, replace them with safer alternatives.

“We use a wide array of scents, soaps, detergents, bleaching agents, softeners, scourers, polishes and specialized cleaners for bathrooms, glass, drains and ovens to keep our homes sparkling and sweet-smelling,” reports the Organic Consumers Association. “But [many] contribute to indoor air pollution, are poisonous if ingested and can be harmful if inhaled or touched.” The group adds that household cleaning products are responsible for almost 10 percent of all toxic exposures reported to U.S. poison control centers, with more than half of cases involving kids under six years old.

According to the Washington Toxics Coalition, leading offenders include corrosive drain cleaners, oven cleaners and toilet bowl cleaners. Contact with these chemicals can cause severe burns on the eyes and skin and can damage the throat and esophagus if ingested. The chlorine and ammonia contained in some can each cause similar problems, and the hazardous gases unleashed when they combine can be lethal. Other ingredients to avoid for many reasons include diethanolamine (DEA), triethanolamine (TEA), 1,4-dioxane, ethoxylated alcohols, butyl cellosolve (aka ethylene glycol monobutyl ether), and p-nonylphenol.

Meanwhile, the fragrances added to many cleaning products can cause respiratory irritation, headaches and other symptoms in those with chemical sensitivities, allergies or asthma. And since fragrance formulas are considered trade secrets, manufacturers aren’t required to disclose constituent ingredients, leaving even educated consumers in the dark regarding what kind of nasty chemicals they may be spreading around their homes just to, ironically, make their cleaning products smell less chemically.

Fortunately there are plenty of safer alternatives available today, but deciding which ones are truly healthier or just designed to look that way isn’t so easy. That’s where the Environmental Working Group (EWG) comes in. The group’s “Guide to Healthy Cleaning” rates and reviews over 2,100 household cleaning products on the basis of health and environmental safety. EWG lists top products in each cleaning category—from dishwashing and laundry detergents to kitchen and bath cleaning to floor and furniture care—and also offers a “label decoder” that helps consumers learn how to spot trouble on product labels and ingredient lists. Some of the brands that garner high marks from EWG in more than one category include Ecover, Earth Friendly Products, Seventh Generation and Green Shield. Look for these online as well as at Whole Foods or other markets with big selections of healthy or natural products.

EWG also maintains a Hall of Shame where it lists cleaning products that either “greenwash” consumers with misleading label information or contain hazardous ingredients (or are banned abroad but still available in the U.S.). EWG makes all of this information free on its website, but a $5 donation will get you a wallet card packed with tips on how to read home cleaning product labels and shop smarter.

CONTACTS: Organic Consumers Association; Washington Toxics Coalition; EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning.

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EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine. Send questions to: Free Trial / Issue 148 - September 2539
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