Skip to main content

Is there lead in your lipstick? Mercury in your mascara? Cadmium in your concealer?

A new report making waves across Canada suggests that the answer in many cases may be yes.

But the trace amounts of metals found in the majority of products also raises some questions about how concerned consumers should be.

Story continues below advertisement

"We sometimes forget to look at the largest source of exposure to some of these substances and we get distracted by looking at relatively small contributors to overall exposure," said Ray Copes, director of environmental and occupational health at the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion. "In the case of cosmetics, there's probably a bit of that going on."

Environmental Defence, a national advocacy group, commissioned the testing of 49 makeup items to determine the presence and levels of eight heavy metals, such as lead and arsenic.

Testing found the products contained an average of four of the eight metals. All products had at least two metals present, according to the group's report.

"I think clearly these results are concerning," said Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence.

Health Canada prohibits companies from deliberately adding metals such as cadmium or lead to cosmetics products. But because the metals are naturally occurring in soil, rocks and water, they end up "in the products we consume and use every day," according to Health Canada. In cosmetics, many of these metals are considered "impurities," meaning byproducts of the manufacturing process or contaminants found in raw ingredients.

The federal government has proposed limits to these impurities in cosmetics, but they have not yet been adopted.

Yet, despite the new report's warnings about the dangers of heavy metals in cosmetics, on average, the products that were tested fell well below Health Canada's proposed impurity limits.

Story continues below advertisement

For instance, Health Canada proposed limits on lead to 10 parts per million (ppm) in cosmetic products. The average amount of lead in the cosmetics tested for Environmental Defence is 4.6 parts ppm.

Similarly, Health Canada has proposed limiting cadmium to 3 ppm in cosmetics. The products tested for the report had, on average, 0.3 ppm of cadmium. None of the products tested contained mercury.

Some products tested higher than others, however. One type of lip gloss sold under the brand Benefit had 110 ppm of lead, the highest amount of any product tested and in excess of the 10 ppm restriction proposed by Health Canada.

That same gloss also had the highest amount of arsenic at 70 ppm, above the proposed limit of 3 ppm.

Dr. Copes, who is also a professor at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said "it's inevitable that at least traces of these substances will get in" to cosmetics because they are ubiquitous in the environment. Efforts should focus on the biggest potential threats, such as exposure to lead, cadmium and other metals through foods grown in soil containing metals, he said.

But Dr. Smith, who has a PhD in zoology, pointed out that varying levels of heavy metals between similar products means companies could do something to limit their presence, if they were motivated.

Story continues below advertisement

For instance, he says, if the federal government required cosmetics manufacturers to disclose the presence of heavy metals on product labels, they might do more to limit the presence of those metals. He argues that because heavy metals such as lead accumulate in the body, potentially causing harm, even trace amounts need to be taken seriously.

Dr. Copes agrees. If it's possible for manufacturers to reduce heavy metals in their products, governments should compel them to do so, he said.

"I think that responsible companies would want to provide their consumers with the highest quality and most pure product possible," he said.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.