Saturday, October 13, 2007

Don't Eat Your Lipstick

Your lipstick may be killing you! At least, that's what Joy Sewing of the Houston Chronicle wants you to think. Her article in Friday's paper ("An ugly discovery: Lead in lipsticks a concern") is just the sort of bad, alarmist journalism about science that drives me crazy.
More than half of 33 top-brand lipsticks recently tested contained detectable levels of lead, according to a report released Thursday by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of environmental and public health groups advocating toxin-free products.

Lead in high doses has been related to learning and behavioral problems in children and has been linked to miscarriages and other health issues in adults.

The study compares lead levels found in lipsticks to the federal standard for lead in candy, which is .1 parts per million, since there is no current standard for lead levels in lipstick, Malkan said.

Oh, where to begin? Let's start with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. The article says that this is a "coalition of environmental and public health groups," but it doesn't list what those groups are. The Campaign's website lists its founding organizations, and a lot of them sound like advocacy groups to me: Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow, Breast Cancer Fund, Clean Water Fund, Commonweal, Environmental Working Group, Friends of the Earth, Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, National Black Environmental Justice Network, National Environmental Trust, and Women's Voices of the Earth. Not surprisingly, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics sounds like an advocacy group, too: among other things, it apparently wants the FDA to regulate cosmetics and other personal care products and for cosmetics companies to sign its Compact for Safe Cosmetics. It's not that research funded by advocacy groups is inherently unreliable, but it ought to be subject to a heightened scrutiny because advocacy groups obviously have an interest in presenting only evidence that supports that which they are advocating. If there existed a trade group consisting of the cosmetics manufacturers of America and this group released a study purporting to show that all cosmetics on the market were perfectly safe, shouldn't such a study be subjected to more scrutiny than such a study put out by an unaffiliated university? Well, why shouldn't a study put out by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. But there isn't a whole lot of evidence that Joy Sewing has done this. The story reads like a press release from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, with a couple of fig leaf quotes from L'Oreal and the FDA.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics prominently mentions on their website that L'Oreal, Estee Lauder, and Avon have refused to sign their Compact. Is it any wonder that products from these manufacturers are singled out in their study? It seems to me that one of the purposes of this study was to generate bad publicity for companies that had refused to sign the Compact.

But what do motivations matter if the study was properly-conducted and shows that there are problems? So, the question is whether the study actually does show a problem. In the study, the standard of comparison for lead levels in lipstick is the FDA-permissible lead level in candy. But this doesn't seem reasonable to me. Candy is a food product largely consumed by children, who apparently have more lead sensitivity than adults. Lipstick is not a food product, and it is not primarily used by children. A more appropriate standard, it seems to me, is that of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which says:

The scientific community generally recognizes a level of 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood as a threshold level of concern with respect to lead poisoning. To avoid exceeding that level, young children should not chronically ingest more than 15 micrograms of lead per day from consumer products.

The big loser in the Campaign study was L'Oreal Colour Riche True Red, which had 0.65 parts per million lead. That means that it contains 0.65 micrograms of lead per gram of lipstick. A quick Google search reveals that a standard tube of L'Oreal Colour Riche lipstick weighs 0.13 ounces, or 3 grams. In order to reach the CPSC maximum lead consumption number, a child would have to eat
more than seven tubes of lipstick daily. And remember that lead is more of a danger for children than it is for adults.

Unless you're eating the lipstick rather than wearing it, and unless you're eating it in massive quantities, the lead levels reported in this study don't seem alarming to me. Rather, they, and this story, seem calculated to alarm consumers for no good reason. The Campaign study is meaningless, its hyping of the study's results is dishonest, and Joy Sewing has allowed herself to be manipulated. A shameful performance all the way around.

1 comment:

Sara said...

You should pull out the good analysis part of this, and send it to the's very compelling. (skip the personal attack bits...)