Why Lead in Lipstick Stories Will Never Go Away

This story about a study of lipstick done by the Daily Mail which showed 55% of lipsticks contained trace amounts of lead leads me to conclude that this problem will never go away.

The problem?

No, not lead in lipstick. This isn’t a problem. There is no credible study that demonstrates the level of lead in lipsticks is anything but safe.

The problem is the belief that there is no safe level of lead or mercury or “toxin” that can be tolerated in cosmetics.

Sadly, this is a problem that cosmetic chemists will have to deal with for the rest of time. Some people will never come to grips with the notion put for by Paracelsus

“All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison….” Paracelsus (1493-1541)


I’ve thought about this a lot because it is such a frustrating topic for scientists. Here are five reasons I think this problem will never go away.

1. Fear stories are more compelling than safety stories.

This is just a truism of journalism. People are more interested in stories that scare them than in stories that are reassuring. Sensationalism sells. So stories of toxic cosmetics will always trump stories declaring cosmetics safe. And since cosmetics are far and away safer than most any other consumer product, the media will have to rehash stories about lead in lipstick. There just isn’t much else.

2. People are scientifically illiterate.

The reason that these fear stories are compelling is because people are generally scientifically illiterate. They also prefer simple answers to complicated questions. Lead = bad is a much easier thing for people to comprehend than “certain levels of lead are bad but other levels are perfectly safe”. Fearmongering is effective because the people propagating the stories do so to a public that is not smart enough about science to make a judgement about the validity of the story.

Did you know that to determine the level of lead in lipstick you have to use Hydrofluoric Acid to separate out the lead? The stomach acid just isn’t strong enough to break down any ingested lipstick so the lead will never get into your system anyway!

3. People are unable to properly evaluate risk.

Another huge problem is that people are just not good evaluating risks. They fret about lead in lipstick or BPA in plastic bottles which have risk levels in the 1 in million lifetime risk, but think nothing of getting in a car which has a 1 in 100 lifetime risk of killing them. Here are the things that kill people. Cosmetics is not one of them.

4. Message benefits some marketers.

One of the reasons these stories will stay around is because some marketers use fear to set themselves apart from their competition. When you see “paraben-free” or “sulfate-free” claims on a container, there is the implicit claim that those things are dangerous or otherwise bad. These are not direct lies but they implicitly propagate a myth and benefit from it.

5. Dunning Kruger effect.

Finally, there is the Dunning Kruger effect. This is the notion that someone unskilled in a subject has more confidence in their opinion about the subject than someone who actually knows something about it. So, you get books written by PR Agents and Runway Models exposing the toxicity & dangers of cosmetics. Why is it that people who have spent their careers researching and testing cosmetic products are not writing scare books about cosmetics? Why is it that the people who would most likely know the truth about whether cosmetics are dangerous don’t pen these books?

Dunning Kruger.

Cosmetic formulators

So, what does this mean for cosmetics and cosmetic chemists?

In some ways stories like these are positives for cosmetic chemists. Whenever an ingredient comes under fire from a NGO (non-governmental organization) watchdog group, cosmetic manufacturers perk up and get their scientists to work on versions of the formulas that do not contain the ingredient. This defensive formulation work can keep people gainfully employed for years.

Unfortunately, this means that you don’t get to do any real innovation or develop products with new benefits. You simply spend your time reworking products that work perfectly fine using alternative, usually substandard, ingredients. (If they weren’t substandard you would’ve used those ingredients in the first place).

But alas, this is the way of the world. Until we improve science education in our country and around the world, people are still going to find “Lead in Lipstick” stories compelling.

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How to Become a Cosmetic Chemist

The job of a cosmetic chemist, or as they call it in the UK a cosmetic scientist, requires you to do a wide variety of things both in and out of the lab. Your main responsibility will be that of a formulator. This means you mix raw materials together to create cosmetic products like lipstick, nail polish, skin lotions, shampoos, toothpaste and any other type of personal care product.

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