Lead in makeup. Can cosmetics manufacturers avoid it?

The long answer is more complicated than that.

As manufacturers and formulators of cosmetic products, we completely depend on the ingredients other manufacturers make, synthesize or formulate. Although we have an incredibly large array of suitable and highly effective ingredients to use and trillions of combinations based on science and research, when it comes to colorants, we have nowhere to go but to legally stick to three FDA approved colorants: Mineral Pigments (Iron Oxides, Ultramarine, etc), Dyes (usually made from tar or petroleum although a few are made from vegetable sources) or Lakes (mineral pigments – usually aluminium oxide – coated with dyes) and ONLY 3 synthetically or naturally derived botanical pigments Annatto powder, ß-Carotene and Caramel which are exempt from certification. Anyone manufacturing or formulating makeup intended for eyes, lips or face with botanical pigments not approved by the FDA are unquestionably violating current FDA regulations and probably, since these botanical pigments aren’t regulated nor tested for contaminants, exposing consumers to higher levels of heavy metals than with mineral pigments. (1, 2, 3)

In 2012, when we announced we weren’t launching our makeup line (attracting in the process a quite toxic stalker troll), we did it because of one powerful reason: the pigments WE received from one of our suppliers were NOT of cosmetic grade.

Cosmetic and Food Grade Pigments vs Technical or Artist Grade Pigments

Cosmetic and Food grade pigments are regulated by the FDA, in the US. Technical or Artist grade pigments aren’t that much. Technical or Artist grade pigments contain higher levels of contaminants than cosmetic grade or food grade pigments, not as much as they used to, at least for lead, but still not like the ones intended for food and skin contact. When we approached the supplier of these pigments and requested the MSDS Fact Sheets, we got the run around and we were even told they didn’t have time to look for them, violating FDA regulations in the process. As manufacturers we have the right to request our suppliers MSDS and fact sheets at any moment and for any reason, and those suppliers must comply.

We got incredibly suspicious and pulled the plug on our makeup line, until we could figure out what was going on, and of course deal with the mental toxic troll. It turned out in our tests, lead levels on some of the pigments we got were way above FDA limits for cosmetic use. That’s how our hunt for that elusive lead free pigment started.

Lead is a serious issue, but running away from makeup completely sometimes isn’t the solution. However education and a good beauty regime is.

Over the years, and probably you’ve stumbled on a number of them, myths and lies have been told as absolute truths by bloggers and even shady formulators. To understand how lead lands on your lipstick, we need to understand where mineral pigments come from and how they are synthesized.

Mineral Pigments used in Cosmetics ARE NOT Natural

Google it and you will find pages after pages claiming mineral pigments are natural therefore are good for your skin. Nothing farther from the truth! The fact is SOME Mineral Pigments are natural, yes, those used in artist grade oil paints. Cosmetic Grade Mineral Pigments, those used in makeup, foundations and lipsticks ARE NOT. They’re ALL synthesized in labs under strict and controlled processes to reduce NOT ELIMINATE the levels of contaminants.

Let’s go back in time and learn a bit where those pigments come from. The predecessors of the mineral pigments we commonly refer to as Colorants in modern times, those used by cavemen, came from earth. Our smart primitive ancestors figure out a way to keep records of their major events, by using the walls of their caves as their canvases, their hands as the writing tools, and natural elements like mud filled with a variety of minerals, bones and fruits as the ink to write.

Mud from a variety of places in an array of tones, like ocher, red and brown, bone from dead animals, and a variety of plants were used to paint the walls of caves, like the Altamira Caves in Spain, which I had the pleasure of visiting. Throughout history, the same muds, botanicals and bones, have been improved through refining methods and are still in use to this day by many artists around the world. Fast-forward a few centuries and minerals were successfully extracted from the soil, separated, and through a series of experimentation, and chemical processes these minerals, mud, bones and botanical pigments were transformed into the paints used by thousands of artists throughout history.

Artist like myself, still use pigments extracted from the earth but these pigments aren’t refined much and in most cases not at all, depending who’s behind the manufacturing process of the pigment. Meaning they have higher amounts of contaminants – lead, arsenic, mercury, etc – which make them not suitable to be used in cosmetics, food or drugs. But because these aren’t intended for prolonged skin contact no strict regulations apply. However, because lead is an unavoidable element in these pigments, some regulations have been implemented to reduce its levels, that’s how “lead-free wall paint” came to be, although it isn’t lead-free at all, as lead is part of the composition of the pigment, it just contains very little of it.

Here comes the relatively modern era, and makeup as we know it came to be. Before we even thought about using what we gathered from the soil as makeup, women in ancient times used fruits to color their lips and cheeks. Vanity kicked in and welcome makeup! Soon we found out lead was toxic and our science and technology improved. Through chemistry and technology we were able to make stable pigments, we were able to clean them up and refine them more, and we were able to mass produce them in a larger array of colors, soon finding many other applications for those pigments.

Fast forward to these past 2 centuries. Because we know we cannot just gather mud, dry it, pulverize it and splatter it on our faces, a) because it contains impurities, and b) because many of these pigments aren’t stable, we found a way to mass produce them consistently in labs. The raw materials required to make oxides and such are today still extracted from earth, but through very complex chemicals reactions and processes these raw materials become the fabulous mineral pigments we so much use to improve our external looks.

All mineral pigments, dyes and lakes, are manufactured through complicated processes in labs, using raw materials extracted from earth as the starting point. But these processes are so complicated that the end result cannot be called natural.

From these modern pigments 2 basic standards exist, Cosmetic / Food Grade, and Artist or Technical grade. Both made in the same labs, through the same exact process, one more purified than the other. But as of now, no manufacturer of these pigments in the world, has been able to completely remove all toxic chemicals from them, that’s why they contain trace amounts of lead, arsenic, mercury and/or other elements.

Lead Free Mineral Pigment is a Hoax

There is no mineral pigment in the world that’s free of lead, arsenic and/or mercury

In our journey of discovery, and determined to find that elusive “lead free pigment” we discovered this guy – the lead free pigment – as of today doesn’t exist. You read that right, there is no mineral pigment in the world that’s free of contaminants. So we, like many other cosmetic companies, large and small, found ourselves in a conundrum: Do we not formulate makeup at all, or we do formulate makeup but try to control the best we can the levels of pigments used to provide less toxic – but unfortunately always toxic – alternatives?…

The fact is cosmetic companies don’t add toxic elements to makeup, even though many have been accused of this. Toxic chemicals are in the makeup, because the raw materials used to color them (pigments, dyes, and lakes) already contain them. And they already contain them because it’s part of the chemistry of the pigment due to the raw materials used. Unfortunately if we as formulators want to offer our clients makeup of any kind, we cannot avoid the use of these contaminated colorants. So when I see the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, blasting off L’Oreal for the lead in their lipsticks I cannot but think “Why not go after the manufacturers of those pigments we are ALL forced to use including natural & organic brands?”. I don’t think I’ll get the answer for this one.

After almost 3 years contacting every manufacturer of pigments I could find, in China, the USA, France, and other countries, we came to the conclusion there is no way for us, or anyone to formulate a lipstick, or eye shadow with 100% lead free pigments because there is no such thing as lead free pigments. All those companies claiming to be offering lead free makeup, are misleading consumers and that’s just not ok.

BVO’s New Line of Makeup

We recently launched, against my will, our new makeup line. And I say against my will, because even though I want to offer our customers a better alternative, our new products contain the same pigments so many other manufacturers are using, and in doing so they do contain trace amounts of contaminants, and I just plain don’t like it. NOT because we put them there, but because the pigments used to make that awesome green cream eye shadow already has them in them. We won’t claim our makeup is free of lead, because that would be lying and that’s not right, but what I can say is that in formulating our eye shadows and lipsticks and foundations, we have controlled the levels of pigments that go in, and went as low as we could to diminish the levels of heavy metals in them as much as possible.

How to Protect Yourself from Contaminants in Makeup

Prevention has been the key throughout history. If we know something affects us – say, fire burns – we avoid contact with fire. But in our modern cosmopolitan era, where looks in some cases are our livelihood, avoiding makeup completely is an impossibility.

But there are routines and habits we can get into to prevent as much as possible our encounter with lead in makeup.

  1. Avoid drinking or eating with your lipstick on – While teaching a class on makeup and etiquette in my modeling school, this advice passed down from my mother, made it to our school’s instructional book. She always said “there are two things an elegant woman should never engage into – eating/drinking with lipstick on and eating with her mouth open. Love her to pieces! Use a napkin to remove the lipstick off your lips before drinking or eating. Drinking with a straw also helps minimizing the intake of lipstick. Don’t forget to buy a reusable one from Strawsome.com.
  2. Don’t forget to remove your makeup – One of the best routines you can adopt is the removal of all your makeup daily before heading for bed. Not only will improve your skin appearance, it will diminish your exposure to the toxic metals contained in your makeup.
  3. Favor pastel or lighter colors – The stronger the color the higher the content of pigments in it, the higher your exposure to the toxic elements in it.
  4. Avoid pure mineral pigment – Loose mineral pigment is wonderful in terms of color application. There is no need to apply as much, the colors are more vibrant and the looks can be achieved quickly. However, there is no buffer to minimize your exposure to the toxic chemicals in the makeup. I’m not saying don’t use it, I’m saying avoid using it daily to decrease your exposure.
  5. When you can, go au naturel – Ditch the makeup during weekends or whenever you can, to decrease your exposure. It makes a great impact on your skin and overall health.

Be smart, be sexy, but above all be healthy.


  1. What are your thoughts regarding recipes for DIY natural foundation composed of the following: Arrowroot powder,cocoa powder, zinc oxide and gold mica dust (optional). For blush arrow root powder and hibiscus powder. For mascara aloe vera gel, vitamin e oil and activated charcoal. Is there a concern regarding heavy metals such as lead with any of these ingredients?

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