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Is your lipstick killing you?


For centuries women (and sometimes men) have been using lipstick to enhance their natural beauty. In ancient times some civilisations used crushed jewels to decorate their lips, while Cleopatra used the red dye carmine, derived from crushed Cochineal beetles, to paint her distinctive face. It’s hard to imagine Marilyn Monroe and other Hollywood classic actresses without their trademark red pouts and no celebrity worth their salt today would be caught on the red carpet without their lippy.

We've all heard the frightening statistic about how much lipstick the average woman will eat in a lifetime through eating or by licking her lips - somewhere between 4 and 6 pounds (1.8 and 2.7kgs). That’s a lot of lipstick!

It’s probably hard to imagine literally buying and using that much Peach Sunset or Rose Blush. But it’s worth remembering, as a general rule, that anything that goes on your skin (especially around your mouth where you’re likely to swallow it) will end up in your blood stream and be absorbed by your body. Think about all the times you reapply your lipstick after meals and drinks, or as it wears off throughout the day. There’s a good chance what doesn’t end up on your coffee cup ends up in you. So what exactly are we eating when we pucker up?

The ingredients in lipstick have changed dramatically over the centuries. In Cleopatra’s time a dye extracted from seaweed was also used to give lips a purple-red tinge - it also made women very unwell. In the 19th century lipstick didn’t come in a tube. Instead women painted their lips with carmine dye. But by the turn of the century ingredients like beeswax, castor oil and tallow (animal fat) were being combined to form the same kind of product we use today.

The main ingredients in today’s lipsticks are still waxes (beeswax, candelilla, camauba) and oils (mineral, castor, lanolin or vegetable). We may have moved on from seaweed and jewels, but some of the ingredients in today’s lipsticks are equally unpleasant, not to mention dangerous to our health.

The big nasty. In 2007 the US organisation Campaign for Safe Cosmetics conducted a study which tested 33 popular brands of lipstick. Alarmingly they found that 61 per cent of those lipsticks tested contained lead, with levels ranging up to 0.65 parts per million. Some of these contained six times the maximum amount of lead legally permitted in children’s toys. You can read their report by clicking here.

In 2009 after significant pressure the US Food and Drug Administration released a further study which found lead in ALL samples of lipstick it tested, at levels ranging from 0.09 to 3.06 parts per million. The highest levels of lead were found in the following brands:

  • Cover Girl
  • L’Oreal
  • The Body Shop
  • Maybelline
  • Revlon

Lead is a serious problem because apart from being poisonous (there is NO safe level of lead for the human body at any age) it’s also a dangerous neurotoxin which can damage your brain’s neurons and has also been linked to reproductive problems.

You may have heard that if you rub gold over some lipstick and it turns black then it contains lead. But if you want to properly and scientifically test your lipstick you can buy a lead test kit (usually used to test for lead in paint) from your local hardware:

Parabens (Butyl, Ethyl, Methyl, Propyl)
Always one to avoid, parabens are bad news. These chemicals are estrogen-mimicking preservatives found in many supermarket and department store cosmetics and personal care products including lipstick. They are easily absorbed by the body have been found in breast cancer tumours and can disrupt reproductive and development.

Iron Oxides (including Titanium Oxide)
I’ve always been a little alarmed seeing these two compounds listed in the ingredients of my lipstick. Something that sounds like a metallic chemical wouldn’t be my first choice for smearing on my lips. Iron oxides are responsible for the pigment or colour in your lipstick, while titanium oxide adds white. These are naturally occurring minerals but they are often synthesised for use in cosmetics.

According to (The Personal Care Products Council, USA) the Food and Drug Administration in the US says that iron oxides are safe for use in cosmetics. The Council also states: “Iron Oxides used in cosmetic and personal care products are synthetic. Because some of the starting materials for synthetic iron oxide may come from the earth there may be trace amounts of heavy metals present. The levels of heavy metals in iron oxides are regulated by the FDA, and the small amounts that may eventually be in cosmetic or personal care products do not pose a risk to human health.”

Campaign for Safe Cosmetics states that titanium oxide “show’s little evidence of toxicity, according to the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database. However, when these ingredients are micronized into nanoparticles, they may be toxic when inhaled or absorbed the skin. Very little research has verified the safety of nanoparticles, whose physical properties change when the particles become that small.”

Phthalates (BBP, DEHP, DIDP and many other similar acronyms)
Commonly used to soften plastics for packaging and toys, phthalates are also found in many cosmetics listed as ‘fragrance’. They have been linked to breast and kidney cancer, hormone disruption and birth defects in lab animals.

Mineral oil
A petroleum by-product that acts as an emollient in the lipstick, so it goes onto you lips smoothly. Some natural alternatives replace mineral oil with safer options such as macademia or safflower oil.

It’s easy to be fooled by the vast range of colours and tantalising names (Watermelon Ice or Sugar Plum anyone?) and especially by the lack of product ingredients lists which you don’t need a degree in chemistry to translate. This cocktail of dubious ingredients may be enough to put you off lipstick for life.

Fortunately consumer awareness about the health implications of ingredients in cosmetics has driven demand for healthy alternatives, so you don’t have to go make-up free.

There are lots of lipstick products available that contain ingredients you’re likely to be familiar with. Look for organic products that contain beeswax (unless you’re vegan), plant oils such as safflower, jojoba and macadamia, coco and shea butter and natural Vitamin E. Skip anything that contains parabens, synthetic colours or fragrances and chemical preservatives. Some brands available in Australia include:

Or you could try making your own:

Beetroot red lipstick

1 tsp beetroot powder
or juice
1 tsp vegetable glycerin

½ tsp vitamin E oil (or very thick olive oil)
Combine the vegetable glycerin and beetroot powder in a saucer. Stir until smooth. Add the vitamin E oil. Apply liberally with your finger or a lipstick brush. There is no preservative in this, so make sure you store in the fridge and use within 2 weeks.


Carol Warwick moved to Australia from Scotland as a child and her love of the beautiful Australian outdoors has kept her firmly within these shores. From the first ‘Save the Trees’ t-shirt she wore as a 12-year-old, protecting the environment and trying to live a green life has been her passion.

She believes that we are smart enough to change the world for the benefit of the planet. All it takes is a little education and a lot of commitment to make sure the Earth’s natural beauty and resources are here for generations to come.




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    Sagi says:

    This is an article that makes you think "never thought of that!

    8th November 2011 . 12 years ago
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    Eileen Mackie says:

    Well written and informative article, thanks for all the research. I will think about what lippy I buy next, am nearly out, Thank you

    19th August 2011 . 12 years ago