Many lipsticks and lip glosses found at local drugstores and department stores contain lead, cadmium, chromium, aluminum and five other metals, a just-published study by researchers at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health reports. Earlier studies, including one done in 2007 by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, reported the presence of lead in 61 percent of popular products. The new study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, goes a step further by estimating the risk to consumers who use these products.

Researchers analyzed the concentration of the metals in 32 commonly-found products and then estimated how much metal someone using these every day would be exposed to. What they found was that “some of the toxic metals are occurring at levels that could possibly have an effect in the long term,” says principal investigator S. Katharine Hammond, professor of Environmental Health Sciences.

What’s in Commonly Available Cosmetics: Lead, Cadmium, Chromium

The products tested were common brands selected by a group of young women in Oakland, California. Lead was found in 24 of the 32 products, though at levels that were “generally lower than the acceptable daily intake level.” But such was not so for other metals, including cadmium, which (as Mother Jones points out) is a carcinogen that has been found in breast cancer biopsies and is also commonly found as a soil contaminant. Chromium, another metal identified in the cosmetics, is also a carcinogen and has been linked to stomach tumors.

Based on the study‘s definitions of “acceptable daily intakes,” use of the products tested (especially if someone applies them repeatedly throughout the day) could lead to “potential overexposure to aluminum, cadmium and manganese as well.” Prolonged use of the products could even lead to “exposure to high concentrations of manganese,” which has been “linked to toxicity in the nervous system.”

Sonya Lunder, a scientist at the Environmental Working Group, highlights two concerns raised by the study: can anyone use these products safely? (Not really: as study underscores, the products tested are not safe for young children to play with, as lead exposure at any level is unsafe for developing nervous systems.) Linder also asks “how low can those levels [of metals] go?” Could their content be lowered? Or could safer, if not simply safe, ingredients be used?

Should All Cosmetics Be Avoided?

You might, after reading about these results, choose to forget about cosmetics all together. Some women do prefer to skip the makeup and not submit to what they see as conventional standards of beauty. Some make clear that they’re feminists and wear makeup not to please anyone else, but because they wish to do so.

Should you wish to avoid applying metal along with makeup, Mother Jones offers a list of commonly availably lipsticks and lip glosses with the highest amounts of lead so you can know what products to avoid. Cosmetics most certainly do not have to be made with substances dangerous to our health and to the environment. Some ingredients to look out for and beware of include petrochemicals, the highly vague ingredience “fragrance” and nanoparticles. The Campaign For Safe Cosmetics has suggestions for products that are safe; Treehugger offers a list of “nutricosmetics” that are safe enough to eat as well as put on your skin.

The European Union has something that the U.S. does not: a directive about cosmetics according to which cadmium, chromium and lead at any level are unacceptable for use in cosmetic products. The U.C. Berkeley’s researcher’s study is, as they acknowledge, small in scale. But it does provide an impetus for calling on the FDA to tighten regulations about what can be put into cosmetics, about the U.S. having guidelines like those in the E.U. and about transparency in labeling ingredients — about making sure that consumers know exactly what they are applying on their skin.

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I have functioned as a Business and Media Consultant over the past sixteen years and spent many years developing my capacity to function in our ever evolving use of technology, communication, education and training.