Exposing Cosmetic Companies: How Asian Youth Discovered Toxins in Lipstick

Thursday, May 23, 2013

By Eveline Shen

Image from www.goodlacknail.wordpress.com
Last weekend my 12-year-old daughter came home from her friend’s house with her nails newly painted silver, telling me about the great time she and her friend had at their classmate’s baseball game and then making frozen yogurt. While I was glad that she had fun, I cringed a little inside, knowing that the nail polish had exposed her to chemicals that may lead to asthma, birth defects, and cancer.

Because of loopholes in our laws, cosmetic companies are not required to list what they put into their products.  So when our teenagers go to the local drugstore, they have no way to make an informed decision about which products are safe.  But what if young people had the resources to find out what was hidden in the products they use?  What would happen if they were able to conduct research? What would they learn?

Twelve young Asian women in Forward Together’s youth organizing program set out to answer these very questions.  These young women, all from Oakland high schools, surveyed their peers and identified the 32 individual lip products most commonly used.  The young women then asked researchers at UC Berkeley to investigate the contents of each product. While other previous studies have detected lead in lipstick, this was the first study to test for the presence of eight other metals: aluminum, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, copper, manganese, nickel, and titanium.

The results of this research, recently published in Environmental Health Perspectives, revealed that all of the lipsticks and lip glosses tested contained manganese, titanium and aluminum, and 75% of them contained lead. In fact, half of the samples contained lead at concentrations higher than the US FDA recommended maximum level for lead in candy.  The results were startling to our young women.  "It was surprising because we all assumed that they must be safe if they were on our shelves in local stores. We were so sure there were laws to protect us, " stated Catherine Saephan, one of the leaders in the project.
Based on the results of the study, the average use of some of these lipsticks and lip glosses would result in excessive exposure to chromium, a carcinogen linked to stomach tumors. High use of these makeup products could also result in potential overexposure to aluminum, cadmium and manganese.  Long-term exposure to these chemicals might result in damage to the immune and nervous systems, as well as reproductive failure.

Currently, there are no US standards for metal content in cosmetics. Compare this to the European Union, which has banned more than 1,300 chemicals and considers cadmium, chromium, and lead to be unacceptable ingredients -- at any level.

"I think the results are important (to youth) because we are constantly aware of our body image and how to physically look healthy,” Catherine said. “But,” she continued, “we don’t really pay enough attention to what we are applying on ourselves. Also, it helps us become more aware of what we buy and to question or research what is easily accessible to the public." 

When my first daughter was born, I was shocked to learn that the FDA provides no regulations on the cosmetics industry.  Only 20% of chemicals in personal care products sold in this country are tested for safety.  This means that cosmetics companies are allowed to continue putting harmful chemicals, some of which have been banned in Europe, into sunscreen, lipstick, nail polish and other forms of makeup.  And this is big business– corporations are making a killing by marketing to our kids.  Seventeen Magazine estimates that teenagers spend 9.3 billion dollars a year on cosmetic products alone in this country.

Apparently, our young researchers were not the only people interested in these findings.  Within days of publication, the results were receiving national and worldwide attention, including US major news outlets such as USA today, the BBC, and the Toronto Sun.  When asked to reflect upon how widespread the results of their research were, Catherine exclaimed, "I think it’s awesome! Everybody universally uses similar products that carry these dangerous toxins. If we can help spread awareness and find solutions together, the faster we can resolve this issue."

Dr. Hammond takes it a step further, “I feel strongly that these results mean the FDA should be paying attention to toxic metals in lipstick.  Toxic metals in cosmetics should be regulated to protect women’s health in the US.”

One way we can help spread awareness and increase FDA oversight is to contact our legislators to support the Safe Cosmetics Act. The Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2013  (H.R. 1385) gives consumers, parents, and environmental health advocates a real chance at national legislation that would eliminate harmful chemicals from the products women, men, and children put on their bodies every day.  Join young people, researchers, and parents who are working to ensure that cosmetic companies are no longer allowed to put profit over our children’s health.

Eveline Shen is the Executive Director at Forward Together. 


  1. I just wanted to say my thanks for the information provided here.

  2. The information provided by you is very much helpful in saving small children, from getting exposed to harmful toxins.