Urban Legend Number One: Lipstick May Be Hazardous To Your Health (NOT!)

Today I received an email from my aunt. The subject read "Fwd: Warning About Lipstick." It read as follows:

Recently a lipstick brand called "Red Earth" decreased their prices from $67 to $9.90. It contained lead. Lead is a chemical which causes cancer.

The lipstick brands that contain lead are:
RED EARTH (Lip Gloss)
CHANEL (Lip Conditioner)

The higher the lead content, the greater the chance of causing cancer.

After doing a test on lipsticks,it was found that the Y.S.L. lipstick contained the most amount of lead.

Watch out for those lipsticks which are supposed to stay longer. If your lipstick stays longer, it is because of the higher content of lead.

Here is the test you can do yourself:

1. Put some lipstick on your hand.
2. Use a Gold ring to scratch on the lipstick.
3. If the lipstick color changes to black, then you know the lipstick contains lead.

Please send this information to all your girlfriends, wives and female family members. This information is being circulated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center Dioxin Carcinogens cause cancer, especially breast cancer.

So does this mean you should pitch all of your lipsticks in the trash can and become a lip gloss girl? Absolutely not! Reading this email, my first instinct was to take it with a grain of salt. Not only does it sound improbable that lipstick manufacturers would put a toxic substance in lipstick, I have learned from previous experience that the well-intentioned but alarmist emails that my aunt sends me, forwarded from several of her equally alarmist friends before her, always turn out to be urban legends. Suspecting this one to be the same, I consulted my trusted source for mythbusting: urbanlegends.about.com. Sure enough, the lead in lipstick story is a hoax. It has been in circulation since 2003. Here's what urbanlegend.about.com has to say about it:

Comments: False. This fear-mongering email is long on misinformation and short on verified facts. Laboratory tests have shown that some name-brand lipsticks sold in the U.S. do contain trace amounts of lead from the dyes used in their manufacture, but the lead content of these coloring agents is strictly controlled by the Food & Drug Administration to meet currently accepted safety standards and pose no serious health threat, according to a statement from the American Cancer Society.

Moreover, the message is both inaccurate and misleading when it implies that cancer is the main health hazard posed by lead exposure. Though it is indeed listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a probable human carcinogen, lead has other, more direct health effects — including brain damage, nerve disorders and reproductive problems — that are far more worrisome.

Gold ring test will not detect lead in lipstick.

The handy home test for lead in lipstick touted in the email is bogus. Certain metals, including gold, may leave a dark streak when scratched on various surfaces, but this is an artifact of the metals themselves, not an indicator of a chemical reaction with lead or any other substance.

For accurate information on known and suspected health hazards associated with cosmetic products and ingredients, see the Cosmetics section of the FDA Website.

Update: A new version of this message circulating since September 2006 contains the additional claim that the material was authored by a Dr. Nahid Neman of the breast cancer unit of Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto. No such person exists.

March 2006 statement from Cancer Research U.K.:

The email appears to be one of the many hoax emails claiming that a variety of everyday products can cause cancer. We've had deodorant, shampoo, washing up liquid and now lipstick. None of these claims are true and just spread alarm unnecessarily.

December 2005 statement from the American Cancer Society:

In May 2003, an email began making the rounds claiming that many of the most popular lipsticks on the market contain lead and will cause cancer. The email then offers a way to test lipsticks to see if they have lead.

A search of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Web site finds that lead content of coloring agents used in lipstick is regulated by that agency, and that the levels permitted are not a health problem.

So there you have it. Another beauty myth debunked. Lipstick does NOT cause cancer, so feel free to apply it with reckless abandon. Stay safe, stay beautiful.

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