Go ahead and try to fight it. Lipstick is just iconically female. Big girls use it to enhance their allure; little girls often make their first forays into womanhood by sitting in front of the mirror, imitating the way their mothers paint their lips. Marketing men consider lipstick a ‘gateway’ product for tweens and teens – a purchase to open the floodgates of a lifetime of cosmetic spending.
Social scientists say that changes in lip colour indicate attraction. When we desire one another our lips redden. Lipstick mimics that flush of attraction and, while it’s always been attractive, it’s almost always been toxic. Ancient Egyptians stained their lips with henna, which can be a skin irritant, but they also used other dyes and mineral-based clays that sometimes contained mercury. Talk about the kiss of death…
Lipstick has such a deep place in our psyches that stock-market traders use it as an indicator of economic trends. Rising lipstick sales, the theory goes, indicate a downturn in the market – a notion based on the idea that consumers turn to cheap and cheerful indulgences when they’re feeling uncertain. It has proved a relatively reliable indicator; for instance, in the months after the September 11 terrorist attacks, lipstick sales doubled.
It’s hard to take such thinking seriously, especially since lipstick is also one of the most shoplifted items on the make-up counter and since other data also suggest that around 42 per cent of women buy cosmetics that they never use – a habit that suggests both obsession and depression, traits that may not necessarily be linked with the economy.
What is clear is that lipsticks are money in the bank. In the UK we spend more than £1 billion on cosmetics each year and lipstick is our favourite indulgence. Around 80 per cent of British women regularly wear lip colour and reapply it during the day. Brits are also Europe’s biggest users: each year, we buy nearly enough lipstick and glosses to supply every man, woman and child in the country with a tube or pot. UK spending on cosmetics as a whole is greater than elsewhere in Europe and according to market analysts Mintel, the annual amount of money spent by women in the UK on cosmetics has risen by 40 per cent in the past five years.
Maybelline (owned by cosmetics giant L’Oréal) is the world’s best-selling make-up brand and commands nearly eight per cent of a global market worth $230 billion a year.
The list of ingredients in a lipstick is often complex and long. It brings some of the problems of cosmetics labels into sharp focus. Labelling laws allow manufacturers to forgo putting ingredients on small packages like lipsticks. For products in a range of shades, all colouring agents used across the range may be listed if they are preceded by the words ‘may contain’ and the symbols ‘+/-’. This streamlines labelling but as a result, most women never know what goes into their lipsticks.
They also highlight the problems of lack of long-term safety testing. This product was particularly frustrating to research because a staggering number of its ingredients have never been assessed for safety by the industry’s self-appointed and self-funded ‘watchdog’, the Cosmetics Ingredient Review. Not only have they not been tested as single ingredients, they have also never been tested for how safe they are in combinations of chemicals with foods, sweeteners, preservatives, food colourings and all the other man-made chemicals that go in our mouths on a daily basis.
Mainstream lipsticks are composed of synthetic oils and petroleum-derived waxes. But as with all cosmetics, promises of unique functional ingredients drive sales forward. The addition of UV filters, moisturisers and ‘wetlook’ ingredients keep women impulse-buying even when they already have a drawer full of perfectly usable lipsticks.
What goes on your mouth can also go in your mouth. When a woman wears lipstick, she may swallow a little of it, but it can also be absorbed through the lining of the mouth and it is estimated that a woman may ingest more than four pounds of lipstick in her lifetime.
In recent years, longer-lasting colour has become the Holy Grail of lipstick formulation. Achieving this means adding a variety of plastics, nylon and silicones that effectively glue the colour to the lips. Some of these synthetic ingredients may cause an irritation of the lips called cheilitis.
Synthetic colours (generally indicated by the prefix ‘CI’), especially coal tar dyes such as the ones in Superstay, are common allergens and are also carcinogenic. The fragrance component of a lipstick can be neurotoxic and cause photosensitivity and dermatitis.
In 2004, the Environmental Working Group survey Skin Deep examined 711 lipstick products and found that 28 per cent contained ingredients associated with cancer risk, such as butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), nylon-6, ferric red (iron) oxide, polyethylene, and titanium dioxide. Nylon compounds, red iron oxide and titanium dioxide are present in Maybelline’s Superstay, though the titanium dioxide and iron oxide are not in the dry/ powdered form that is considered most toxic.
In 2005, a more worrying bit of information came out during the annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology in San Diego, California. Scientists there revealed that women with a family history of the autoimmune disease lupus had a greater risk of developing the disease if they regularly wore lipstick (and used hair dye). Women who used lipstick three days a week had a 40 per cent increased risk of developing lupus, and the risk increased with years of lipstick use.
Lupus is nine times more common in women and the finger of blame is usually pointed at their ‘hormones’. But many of the cosmetic chemicals that women are exposed to on a daily basis are hormone mimics.
The important point of this research is that women with a family history of lupus are at the visible end of the spectrum in terms of adverse effects. It is possible that other women may experience chronic sub-clinical immune problems with daily exposure to the ingredients in lipsticks – but until somebody does the necessary research this will, frustratingly, remain in the realm of speculation.
Isododecane*: Solvent, dispersing agent, emollient: Prolonged skin contact may irritate and cause dermatitis. If swallowed, can cause nausea. Penetration enhancer, so brings more toxic ingredients in the mix to enter the bloodstream.
Trimethylsiloxysilicate*: Film former. Silicone-derived resin that seals the colour to the lips. Potential skin irritant.
Nylon 611/dimethicone copolymer*: Gelling agent, film former. Can irritate eyes, skin and airways. A related substance, nylon-6, is considered carcinogenic. Makes the formulation feel ‘dry’ going on and then forms a film that seals the colour to the lips. Nylon requires high energy to produce, and its production involves the precursors benzene (a known human carcinogen) and hydrogen cyanide gas (which is extremely poisonous). The manufacturing of nylon releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides and ammonia into the atmosphere.
Propylene carbonate*: Solvent, plasticiser. Derived from propylene glycol, skin irritant. A component of lithium batteries that helps to improve conductivity.
Parfum: Fragrance. Synthetic fragrances are toxic to the central nervous system, causing anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, irritability and other behavioural problems. Up to 90 per cent of fragrance chemicals are petroleum derivatives that can enter the body through inhalation, skin, or ingestion, and go directly to the brain. Fragrances in cosmetics can cause allergic reactions and are a major trigger for asthma.
Alumina*, CI 77000/Aluminium powder: Opacifier, pigment. Also known as aluminium oxide. Alumina adds a glitter effect to the colour; CI 77000 is a red pigment. Irritant. Aluminium is also considered toxic, carcinogenic and mutagenic. It is a neurotoxin associated with brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Bis-diglyceryl polyacyladipate-2: Emollient. Synthetic substitute for lanolin. Sometimes misleadingly listed as ‘bis-diglyceryl polyacyladipate-2 (vegetable oil)’ – it is not simply vegetable oil but is instead a highly synthesised adulterated vegetable-based oil. Adipic acid, a main constituent of this compound, is irritant to the skin, eyes, mucous membranes and upper respiratory tract when applied, inhaled or ingested. Adipic acid production is also one of the largest potential source of industrial nitrous oxide (N²O) emissions. N²O is a potent greenhouse gas.
Cera Microcristallina, Ozokerite: Mineral waxes. Often misleading listed as ‘natural’ ingredients, these waxes are derived from petroleum and can be irritating and drying to the skin.
Iron oxides, mica: Add colour, luminescence. Iron oxides have persistent and bioaccumulative properties. Mica if ingested poses potential gastrointestinal or liver toxicity hazards.
Dyes: Add colour. Many coal tar derivatives are suspected carcinogens, and most artificial colorants have not yet been tested for cancer risk. Cosmetic colours can cause hives, skin irritation and photosensitivity and in the longer term are linked with chromosome damage and reproductive mutations. Bismuth compounds (e.g. CI 77163/Bismuth oxychloride) are toxic and known to cause intellectual impairment, memory loss, confusion, loss of coordination and tremors. Carmine (CI 75470) has been linked to hyperactivity in children.
* Indicates the ingredient has not been assessed for safety by the industry’s own Cosmetics Ingredient Review board.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2006