Toxic Metals Found in 96% of Tested Cosmetics

Toxic Metals Found in 96% of Tested Cosmetics

Some of the most popular makeup brands worldwide are guilty of using toxic heavy metals in their cosmetics. Even more shocking? It’s perfectly legal and isn’t being disclosed on labels, leaving consumers at risk for grave harm to their health.

If you think that federal agencies like the FDA are watching your back as a consumer, it’s time to open your eyes to the sad truth: no one is protecting you. At least not when it comes to the creams, lotions, and cosmetics you use on your body.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), whose stated mission is “to enhance and protect the health and well-being of all Americans,” has appointed The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), part of the Public Health Service, to “ensure that food is safe, pure, and wholesome; human and animal drugs, biological products, and medical devices are safe and effective; and electronic products that emit radiation are safe.”[1] Cosmetics and personal care products, noticeably absent from this mission statement, fall between the cracks of responsibility for HHS agencies, leaving consumers exposed to an ever-broadening range of unscrupulous manufacturers and the dangerous products they sell.

The cosmetics and personal care products that we routinely slather on skin, and even more sensitive areas such as the lips and eyes, are woefully unregulated. The FDA not only permits ingredients that are proven to be detrimental to human health into cosmetics, it turns a blind eye when it comes to enforcing honest labelling and disclosure requirements on manufacturers. Cosmetic registration is completely voluntary, hence unscrupulous manufacturers can simply decline to take this added step. According to an Consumer Update: “While [the] FDA does approve color additives used in cosmetics, it is the responsibility of cosmetic manufacturers to ensure that their products are safe.”[2] In other words, manufacturers must be their own police. Unless a spate of consumer complaints puts a product on the radar, the general public has little hope of consciously avoiding unsafe products.

In this modern era when corporate profits trump individual rights, focused groups of passionate and informed citizens can be the heroes that we all need. One such example is Environmental Defence Canada, a group of policy experts, journalists, and activists that, according to their website, “are Canada’s most effective environmental action organization.” Founded in 1984, Environmental Defence connects people with environmental issues that affect their daily lives. Toxic cosmetics, specifically the proliferation of heavy metals in face makeup, was an issue that Environmental Defence believed warranted deeper scrutiny.

Their May 2011 report begins with the problem statement: “Heavy metals are in our face makeup, and consumers have no way of knowing about it.” In an effort to assess how deeply this problem may be affecting Canadians, Environmental Defence conducted a random sampling of makeup from six women of various ages from across the country, asking them to each identify five pieces of face makeup that they use regularly. These items, along with five other samples selected by the research team, were then subjected to testing. In total, the group tested forty-nine types of face makeup, including foundations, concealers, powders, blushes/bronzers, mascaras, eye liners, eye shadows, and lipsticks/glosses. All makeup items were common consumer brands purchased from retailers throughout Toronto.

Samples were tested by an accredited Canadian laboratory for the presence of eight toxic heavy metals: arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, beryllium, nickel, selenium, and thallium. Except for nickel, all of these metals are “banned” as intentional ingredients in cosmetics.

It may be tempting to believe that exposure amounts are negligible with cosmetics but consider this: heavy metals can accumulate in the body over time, rendering even small doses a growing threat to human health. And the risks presented are far from minor: lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury are linked to a variety of health problems in humans, including cancer, neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, and autism, nerve, joint, and muscle disorders, autoimmune conditions, lung and kidney damage, among other catastrophic health concerns. Nickel poisoning is associated with lung and reproductive system damage, while thallium and selenium are associated with hair loss, and liver damage, among other maladies.

The health impacts of heavy metal poisoning are well known to science and even most laypersons. The extent to which cosmetics companies are hiding toxic metals in makeup is one of the industry’s best-kept secrets. In fact, Environmental Defense’s analysis found that the use of heavy metals in cosmetics is so pervasive, the lab test results shocked everyone involved in the project.

The number of products that tested positive for detectable metals was an astonishing 96%. Lead, arguably the most toxic metal in the study, was found in 96% of products. 90% contained beryllium; 61% tested positive for thallium; 51% had cadmium and 20% contained arsenic. High-end detection limits were 110 parts per million (ppm), with the highest levels of arsenic (70 ppm), cadmium (3 ppm), and lead (110 ppm) found in lip glosses which are frequently reapplied and certain to be ingested.

While the FDA doesn’t have specific safety limits for lead in food, the agency set the high-end safety limit for lead in bottled water to 5 ppb, or parts per billion. The 110 ppm of lead that was found in the lip gloss equates to 110,000 ppb, an astonishing increase of more than 2 million percent of what is allowable in drinking water.[3] The picture should be getting more clear: makeup can be more toxic than food.

Tested products not meeting low-end limits for specific metals does not necessarily mean that those metals were not present; particulate may be too small to be measured. It is important to note that many of these metals have no “safe levels” of exposure—all amounts of lead are toxic to the body. Mercury, a banned chemical in all cosmetic products that has no safe level of exposure, is still found in cosmetics and creams such as anti-aging products, bleaching creams, and even acne products aimed at adolescents.[4]

Noteworthy findings from this study show the pervasiveness of this threat to human health:

  • Seven of the eight metals of concern were found in 49 different face makeup items.
  • All products contained at least two metals of concern.
  • None of the heavy metals were listed on product labels.

With cosmetics frequently applied to broken skin and areas such as the lips and mouth where they are likely to be ingested, these results are cause for extreme caution when choosing cosmetic products. But how do consumers know which products are safe, and which should be avoided? Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database allows you to enter a specific cosmetic brand name and check it against nearly 70,000 items. The following list, compliments of Environmental Defence Canada, shows which of the cosmetics tested in their eye-opening study ranked highest on the list of toxic metal ingredients.

Products tested in EDC’s study that were found to contain the highest levels of toxic metals:

  • Foundation: Clinique Stay True Makeup (Stay Ivory)
  • Concealer: Laura Mercier Secret Camouflage (Light)
  • Powder: Sephora Sculpting Powder Trio
  • Blush/Bronzer: MAC Sheerton Shimmer Blush (Springsheen); Physician’s Formula Summer Eclipse Bronzing; Shimmery Face Powder (Bronze and Gold)
  • Mascara: L’Oreal Bare Naturale (Black/Brown); Avon Astonishing Lengths (Black A01)
  • Eye liner: Fashion Flare Eye Liner Pencil (Midnight Black); CoverGirl Perfect Point Plus (Black Onyx)
  • Eye shadow: Too Faced Eye Shadow Duo (I know what boys want – Grey); Almay Intense i-color Trio
    (02-Trio for Blues – Dark Grey); Almay Intense i-color Trio (02-Trio for Blues – Brown); The Body Shop Shimmer Cubes (Palette 16 – Midnight Black)
  • Lip color: Benefit Benetint Pocket Pal (Red Tint)

For more information, you can access Environmental Defence Canada’s full report of this eye-opening study.