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Over the past several years, well-known cosmetic brands have come under fire as their lipsticks were found to be contaminated with lead and other dangerous heavy metals. The negative media attention pushed consumers to look more closely at the ingredients in their lipsticks and, ultimately, turn to plant and mineral-based lip products as a healthier alternative.

But it’s important to ask: how did the conventional lipsticks become contaminated in the first place? And are mineral and plant-based lipsticks subject to this same exposure?

Let’s find out.

Heavy metals contaminate the minerals found in nature

Lead, mercury, and other heavy metals are found naturally in soil and rock. So, pretty much anything that comes from the earth has at least some trace of heavy metals. This means that if lipsticks were made with naturally mined minerals, they would be susceptible to contamination.

The thing is, many natural lipsticks made from mineral ingredients tend to be free from contamination, while traditional lipsticks are not. So what’s the difference? It turns out, it’s the non-mineral ingredients in traditional lipsticks that are the problem.

Confused? Here’s a bit of context.

Mineral ingredients are synthesized in a lab

The most common minerals you’ll find in natural lipsticks are:

  • For SPF protection: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide
  • For color, shine, and texture: iron oxide, mica, and silica

When the mineral oxides are mined directly from the ground — as naturally-occurring titanium dioxide, for example — they can be contaminated with lead, mercury, or other heavy metals found in their surrounding environment.

But when titanium dioxide is synthesized from pure titanium and pure oxygen, the result is a clean, non-toxic, and (therefore) more desirable version of what you’d find in nature. So while I tend to avoid synthetic ingredients as a general rule, mineral oxides are one big exception that I make.

Hmm. While traditional lipsticks are typically not marketed as “mineral-based”, they often contain these same ingredients. So that begs the question, how are traditional lipsticks contaminated with these same heavy metals, if they aren’t coming from the minerals?

Petroleum-based ingredients in lipsticks

Findings suggest that coal tar colorants are at least one main contributor to heavy metal contamination in traditional lipsticks. In the past, coal tar colorants were a byproduct of actual coal. But today, these colors are synthesized in a lab… from petroleum. If the petroleum is contaminated, their resulting colorants will be as well.

You’ll see coal tar colorants listed on the label as D&C and FD&C colors. So if heavy metal contamination is a concern, you’ll want to avoid lipsticks that list them.

Avoiding toxins in lipstick

While the accidental contamination by heavy metals is a concern, so are many of the intentional ingredients in traditional lipsticks. Chemical fillers and dyes, phthalates, parabens, and synthetic fragrances commonly fill the ingredients list of well-known lipstick brands.

By contrast, natural lipsticks made from plant and mineral ingredients tend to skip the toxic ingredients in favor of healthier (even nourishing) alternatives.

And fortunately for us, when cosmetics are free from harmful ingredients, they aren’t shy about saying so! They want us to know that they’re a safe choice, right?

Simply check the label or website to see how much information the company offers. If the details are easy to find, that’s a very good sign. What sorts of ingredients should you hope to see? In place of the usual synthetic dyes, look for fruit, flower, and mineral-based colorants.

Also, to help make sure your lipstick is truly free from harsh chemicals, you can easily search for it on EWG’s Skin Deep database. It has all sorts of data on popular skincare items and cosmetics, with graphs and ratings to show you how safe (or unsafe) your purchase might be.

Now you just have to get back to the hardest part of all: choosing the perfect color.


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