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Roses Are Red, Lipstick (Still) Has Lead

More than a year after health groups reported that top-selling lipsticks contain lead, the FDA is just sitting on the results of the research.

Any day now, President Obama will name the head of the Food and Drug Administration, and the question is: Will the new FDA revive its passion for the public interest, or continue giving consumers the toxic kiss off?  

Case in point: lead in lipstick. More than a year after health groups in the U.S. reported that top-selling lipsticks contain lead, FDA is sitting on the results of its own research.  

Meanwhile, new tests reveal that lipstick isn't the only make-up with a heavy-metal problem. Health Canada announced last week that if found lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium during routine testing of children's face paints. The results were immediately announced to the public as the government evaluates next steps.

Health Canada is also conducting a major review of chemicals in cosmetics, and creating an "ingredient hotlist" to prevent harmful chemicals from entering beauty products in the future.

Here at home, Americans are left to wonder about the safety of cosmetics.  Unlike Health Canada, the U.S. FDA has no toxic-chemical designation, does not conduct routine safety testing of personal care products, and -- as the lipstick saga shows -- doesn't even bother to share its science with the public.

Lead in Lipstick Jungle 

The story began with internet rumors claiming that popular brands of lipstick contained lead, a highly toxic heavy metal that can affect brain development at the lowest doses.

Not true, said the cosmetics industry.  

True, according to tests conducted in October 2007 by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: 61% of the lipsticks tested contained lead, including a $24 tube of Christian Dior Addict and six L'Oreal brands. (In contrast, a $1.99 tube of Wet & Wild and several Revlon lipsticks did not contain lead).   

FDA said it would conduct its own analysis, and several U.S. Senators urged FDA to test a wide range of lipsticks, publicly report the results, and take immediate action to reduce lead exposure from cosmetics. 

Fourteen months later, FDA has made no public statements, issued no report and taken no action to reduce lead exposures.   

It takes about 10 days to turn around lead tests in a lab, so what's the hold up? FDA is saying they will not release their study until it is published in a peer-reviewed journal -- a process that could take years. 

In the meantime, don't expect any action from the beauty industry. L'Oreal has repeatedly dismissed concerns about lead with the statement that their brands are "in full compliance with FDA regulations." 

Unfortunately, FDA doesn't regulate lead in cosmetic products. 

Bush-era Tactics 

This isn't the first time FDA has kept science from the public with the peer-review journal excuse. In 2002, environmental groups reported that 70% of personal care products tested contained phthalates, a set of industrial chemicals linked to birth defects and infertility. 

FDA conducted its own study of phthalates in cosmetics in 2003 but did not release the data despite a Freedom of Information Act request filed by environmental groups. The FDA study eventually appeared -- three years later -- in a journal edited by an Estee Lauder staffer.

The public was not notified, the article cost $35, and the raw data was not disclosed as required by law. 

So what's going on at the FDA Office of Cosmetics? 

As I wrote in my book, "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry," in recent years, the agency has served more as a marketing arm for the beauty industry than a watchdog for public health.

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