The word 'intimate' isn't often used in relation to lipsticks but, when you think about it, they are the only cosmetics that are truly intimately connected to our bodies. Not only are they applied to a highly absorbent skin surface but, more important, they inevitably end up in our mouths . . . and, from there, in our stomach, bloodstream and, thus, the rest of our internal organs.
So, in fact, lipsticks should be placed in the same category as food additives but, amazingly, they are still officially classified as cosmetics and continue to come under that regulatory heading. Yet, the average woman is estimated to 'eat' one to three tubes of lipstick per year - which works out to a staggering 4-9 lb of lipstick over a lifetime.
However, the regulations regarding lipsticks remain relatively lax. Like all cosmetics, the safety of their ingredients is scrutinized almost exclusively through a self-policing, industry safety committee, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel. That 's the situation in the US. In Europe, the regulations are a bit tighter, with manufacturers having to show that "under normal and reasonably foreseeable conditions of use, the product shall not endanger human health or safety ". The rule of thumb used is the ADI (acceptable daily intake) - a scientific-sounding, but empty, acronym, as it only amounts to a guess as to what toxic doses the body will "accept".
Are lipsticks safe?
Although their constituents are simple (three basic elements: wax, oil and colour), lipsticks can contain as many as 60 different ingredients. Take Avon 's Beyond Colour Plumping Lipcolor with Retinol, for example. It packs 62 separate compounds into that luscious red stick, but seven of them are potential carcinogens, four are potential endocrine disrupters and 42 (mainly the colours) haven 't even been safety tested.
Top of the Avon toxic list is butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), a preservative. It's a 50-year-old compound that was first licensed as a food additive in 1954 to stop fat going rancid, but years of lab tests on innocent animals have shown that it can cause lung cancer and damage to the kidneys: "harmful if swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through the skin; severe irritant for eyes, skin and respiratory system ", say Oxford University experts (seminar at the Physical and Theoretical Chemistry Laboratory, Oxford University, 23 February 2005).
In fact, BHT is such a powerful cancer-promoter that it's actually used to induce tumours in mice for cancer experiments (J Natl Cancer Inst, 2005; 97: 1778 -81). And yet, the authorities still allow women to lick it off their lips. So far, only a handful of countries have banned it as a foodstuff, although even McDonald 's voluntarily stopped using it 20 years ago. And it's not just Avon's products - many lipsticks contain BHT.
Many lipsticks also contain another set of preservatives called parabens. These hormone-mimicking chemicals have been implicated in both breast cancer (Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab, 2006; 20: 121 -43) and reduced sperm counts (J Vet Med Sci, 2002; 64: 227-35), at least in rats, so it may not be applicable to humans.
And then, of course, there are the colours. Those with names like Allura Red or Sunset Yellow, or any colour designated as 'Lake', are chemical dyes derived either from coal tar or aluminium.
What's their safety status? Well, frankly, not that good. In the US, any substance can be used in cosmetics unless it fails the official government safety tests. The system requires the manufacturer to pay for the safety test - but, crucially, only if the product is passed as safe. If the authorities want to ban a substance, they themselves have to pay for the cost of the safety research. So, the bias against the authorities declaring a substance harmful is obvious. Hundreds of colours are permitted for use - or, more correctly, not banned. As a back up, there is meant to be a voluntary self-reporting scheme to report adverse reactions, but a recent survey has shown that the public doesn 't use it.
In Europe, again the situation is more closely regulated. Nevertheless, over a hundred colours can be used in lipsticks - but only 75 are permitted in food. For example, there's a particular shade of orange that's allowed to go into lipsticks, but not into foodstuffs. The food colours believed to be safe are classified as E-numbers, but there 's no such system for cosmetic colours.
However, not every country thinks coal-tar colours are safe. Norway, for example, has banned them outright because of evidence of an association with both cancer (Int J Epidemiol, 1990; 19: 264 -8) and even damage to DNA (J Toxicol Sci, 1979; 4: 211-9).
First red-flagged over 20 years ago, the genetic-damage issue has recently resurfaced with the development of a sophisticated test called 'comet' - also known as 'single-cell gel electrophoresis' (SCGE) - which can detect DNA breaks in individual cells. Genetic testing used to be very expensive and long-winded, but comet is beginning to change all that - and thrown up some very disturbing findings.
When Japanese researchers comet-tested seven colours - six types of red and one yellow - commonly used as food additives (and therefore permitted in lipsticks) on mice (so it may not apply to humans), they discovered that all were 'genotoxic', able to cause damage to the DNA in stomach, colon and bladder cells at very low doses. The worst offenders in their tiny sample were three of the reds - Amaranth (E123), Allura Red (E129) and New Coccine (Food Red No. 18) - and one yellow - Tartrazine (E102) - all of which caused DNA damage to the colon at dosages close to acceptable daily intakes (Mutat Res, 2002; 519: 103 -19). Two other commonly used food colours - Quinoline Yellow (E104) and Brilliant Black (E151) - have also been found to be genotoxic by Polish researchers (Cell Mol Biol Lett. 2004; 9: 107 -22).
Apart from coal-tar colours, lipsticks also contain the so-called 'Lake' colours. Made with aluminium salts, there is some concern that the metal may be neurotoxic (J Alzheimers Dis, 2005; 8: 171 -82). As if that weren't enough, there have recently been reports that lipsticks contain another toxic metal - lead. This almost certainly comes from bismuth oxychloride, an ingredient added to impart a lustrous, pearlescent effect to lipstick. The chemical is a byproduct of the lead-smelting industry, and all the lead is supposed to have been removed before it 's sold on to the cosmetics industry. Nevertheless, traces of lead have been detected by University of Pittsburgh scientists in every lipstick brand they 've tested so far. Although the quantities are supposedly too low to be dangerous, lead scientist Dr Debra Davis suggests that, to be on the safe side, young and pregnant women should avoid it.
KEY TO RATINGS
* WITHOUT MERIT
Fortunately, there's now a reasonable choice of lipsticks using 'natural' ingredients. But how much does 'natural' mean 'safe'? And are they genuine alternatives to the usual brands?
We put five of the leading alternative brands to the test, asking a cross-section of women to use each one for a week. We scored the lipsticks according to six main criteria: What are they like to use? Do they work as well as the standard brands? How good are their 'natural/safe' credentials? Could people with severe multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) use them? Do they offer a good choice of colours? Are they value for money?
Sadly, we have to report that none merited a truly five-star status, and was let down by either its ingredients, performance or price.
Manufacturer: Living Nature
Price: lb13.65 for 4.5 g
Mail order: 01794 323 222
Made with relatively few ingredients, this range contains a blend of plant oils and beeswax, with the colour coming from iron oxides (different coloured rusts) and mica, a naturally occurring clay that adds lustre. Living Nature offers a choice of 10 colours, a surprisingly good range for such a simply made product. Although it 's supersafe, our testing panel rated it the worst in our sample, complaining of its poor moisturization and lack of adhesion to the lips.
Price: lb21.65 for 5 g
Mail order: 08707 700 980
The most expensive in our sample, these lipsticks come in eight "sensational" colours, according to Jurlique. The colouring agents are mainly ultrasafe iron oxides, with the only question mark being the occasional use of titanium dioxide (see Dr Hauschka below). Jurlique needs to brush up on its Latin, as it misspells the technical term for beeswax, which is not a major ingredient anyway, as the bulk of the product is a blend of plant waxes, oils and plant moisturizers. One ingredient is oil of cloves, which reminded one tester of going to the dentist, but most of our panel liked the product in general, but thought it was too expensive.
Manufacturer: Green People
Price: lb9.99 for 4.5 g
Mail order: 01403 740 350
On the plus side, this range is claimed to be either 100-per-cent organic or naturally grown. It uses similar ingredients to Living Nature, except for an eyebrow-raising aluminium oxide, presumably included to make the colour more permanent. However, aluminium has been suspected of being neurotoxic (see text above). However, it 's among the least costly of our sample, and Green People give away 10 per cent of its profits to charity. Our panel wasn 't overly impressed, though. There's a choice of only four colours, all of which everyone thought were too "glittery" and "bizaare". But they all liked the slight minty taste and the moisturizing feel on the lips.
Price: lb8.95 for 4.5 g
Mail order: 01557 870 203
Lavera offers a sample-leading choice of 14 shades of lipstick, each one blended from a mix of natural colours - primarily, carmine, mica, different iron oxides and ultramarine. The core ingredients are a blend of plant oils and two plant waxes, some of which are organic. However, the lipsticks contain three ingredients suspected of being hazardous: titanium dioxide (see Dr Hauschka below); zinc oxide, which can cause pustules on the skin at relatively high, continuous doses (Nanolabs Material Safety Data Sheet, 20 February 2005), and bismuth oxychloride, which, apart from containing lead (see main text above), can cause skin irritation. So, although the cheapest of our sample, these lipsticks are let down by questionable ingredients. However, our panel approved of this product in general and liked the range of colours.
Manufacturer: Dr Hauschka
Price: lb18 for 4.5 g
Mail order: 01386 791 022
Although containing basic ingredients similar to Jurlique's, and with a choice of 12 different colours, Dr Hauschka's offerings may not suit the most chemically sensitive consumer. One questionable ingredient is lanolin, which comes from sheep 's wool and is very difficult to guarantee as pesticide-free. The inclusion of 'fragrance' is another odd addition for a 'natural' lipstick, as the term covers a multitude of chemicals, some of which are known to affect people with MCS. There is also some concern regarding the use of titanium dioxide, a 'lustre' ingredient that, if finely ground, can penetrate the skin; high doses have been found to cause organ damage in laboratory animals, though this may not necessarily apply to humans (Toxicol Lett. 2007; 168: 176 -85). However, this was the only lipstick to score top marks, although some of our panel didn 't like the "overpowering, sickly" taste, and its relative lack of durability after eating and drinking.