Some dangeous chemicals with your vampy pout?

A failed California bill tried to push companies to keep the lead out of red lipsticks.

Published July 1, 2008 3:40PM (EDT)

Clown Day in my kindergarten class wasn't just a precursor to our trip to Ringling Bros. It was also the first time I slathered a layer of chemicals all over my sensitive skin, i.e., the first time I wore makeup. The red, itchy reaction taught me -- scared me! -- at age 5 that something within that list of polysyllabic ingredients was not good for my skin.

As an adult, I wear makeup, like most American women, even though I occasionally suffer a patch of skin on my eyelids or cheeks that looks like I took a cheese grater to it. So last week, the Legislature in California gave me pause when the Assembly Health Committee killed a bill to require makeup companies to make lipstick with the lowest levels of lead.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Carole Migden, D-S.F., took its cues from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which in October 2007 published "A Poison Kiss: The Problem of Lead in Lipstick" (PDF), about lead levels in red lipsticks. The study, which I wrote about for the Daily News last year, found that "one-third of the lipsticks in a study of 33 red lipsticks contained levels of lead exceeding 0.1 parts per million -- that's more lead than the FDA's limit for candy." Lead, as if I need to remind you, is a toxic material that can cause damage to the kidneys and the reproductive system. Of course, the makeup companies that I interviewed for the article pointed out that people don't ingest lipstick the way they do a piece of candy. But the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics said how lipstick makes its way into a woman's body doesn't matter -- the amount of lead is nevertheless dangerous.

Most disconcerting to me was the fox-watching-the-henhouse nature of the cosmetics industry. Color me naive, but I trusted smaller makeup companies with a do-gooder reputation, like the Body Shop, to have my best interests at heart and thought it was Big Beauty, like L'Oréal, that I shouldn't trust. The CSC's study, however, proved that companies of all sizes have manufactured lipstick with questionable levels of lead in it. But the problem is the existing government regulations regarding harmful substances in cosmetics, which are confusing, to put it mildly.

The CSC is blaming lobbyists from Big Beauty for the death of the bill, and it vows in a press release to return the bill to the Legislature next year. Considering the back-and-forth on how to regulate chemicals in cosmetics, it's kind of remarkable that it passed the state Senate by a vote of 22-17 at all. (Globally, women spend $253 billion on cosmetics and toiletries each year, according to GCI, the business magazine for the global beauty industry. For perspective on how much money that is, it's more than the 2007 GDP for the entire Czech Republic!)

For me, the jury is still out on whether all makeup, or only certain types, should be verboten. My concern, though, is that rashes and inflammations won't always warn me and the millions of other women who wear makeup how unwanted by our bodies the chemicals can be.

By Jessica Wakeman

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