Where do you think you’re most likely to be exposed to heavy metals? Old paint in your basement? Your latest sushi obsession?
Or maybe it’s an issue that’s not even on your radar, like your lipstick.
Yes, everything from your deodorant to your blush can be (and probably is) contaminated with heavy metals.
But if you’re like a lot of people (including myself, not too long ago), you might not really understand what that means. What are heavy metals? Are you really exposed at levels that can be potentially harmful? And if so, is there anything you can do to prevent it?
This topic is a personal interest of mine since becoming a mom, but it’s also important for all of us to be aware of heavy metal exposure can have both an immediate and long-term impact on your health.
What Are Heavy Metals?
Heavy metals are naturally-occurring elements that have a high atomic density and therefore a high atomic number. Remember the Periodic table of Elements? You’ll find all the heavy metals listed there.
But in case you don’t have your chart handy, the most common heavy metals include:
Some heavy metals are toxic—such as arsenic and lead—but others are essential nutrients like iron and zinc. (Just another example of how “natural” doesn’t always mean safe.) They can be benign at low levels, useful at appropriate levels, and toxic in excess.
Heavy Metal Toxicity: It Happens Overtime
There are two types of heavy metal poising: acute and chronic. Acute poisoning occurs when someone is exposed to a high level of heavy metals. Symptoms are sudden and dramatic like passing out and vomiting.
In the U.S., acute poisoning is very rare. Think of things like industrial accidents and chemical spills.
Chronic heavy metal toxicity is much more common—it occurs when you’re exposed to low levels of heavy metals over an extended period of time. The heavy metals can then build up more quickly than your body can detox them.
Think of it like dripping water into a bucket with a very small crack in the bottom. At first, the water drops run out through the crack, but slowly, the drops start to build up and can’t exit the bucket as quickly as they’re entering. Eventually, the bucket runs over, even as water continues to seep out of the crack.
Symptoms of chronic exposure come on slowly over time, and because they are vague, can easily be mistaken for other conditions. The most common symptoms are:
- Weakness and fatigue
- Achy joints and muscles
Chronic heavy metal exposure also has clear links to cancer, birth defects, kidney disease, and lung damage.
For example, numerous studies have found daily antiperspirant use is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. Aluminum is the active ingredient in antiperspirants, and studies have found applying antiperspirants daily correlates with higher aluminum content in the breast.
Additionally, low-level lead exposure in pregnant women has been linked to low-birth weight and developmental delays.
Chronic exposure is all about exposure over time. Small daily exposure can be enough to cause serious symptoms. And if you’re pregnant or have a condition like MTHFR-gene mutation (which can impair detox abilities) you’re at increased risk. Kids, who don’t have the full detox capabilities of adults, are also at increased risk.
Does Your Makeup Contain Heavy Metals?
Cosmetics are one of the main ways people are exposed to heavy metals. Surprised? I was too.
Heavy metals can contaminate cosmetics in one of two ways: either through the manufacturing process, or they contaminate the natural colors used to formulate the product.
For the most part, we can’t see, smell, taste, or feel heavy metal exposure. We assume the products we buy and use are safe. But that’s just one of the myths that opens us up to potential illness, even life-altering impacts like breast cancer and kidney disease.
Most disturbing? The Food and Drug Administration has published acceptable levels for heavy metals in cosmetics, but doesn’t require companies to abide by these standards or test products for safety. Other than color additives, cosmetics don’t have to be tested or proven safe before they go to market.
In fact, a recent federal analysis found that over 400 shades of lipstick from popular brands like L’Oreal and Maybelline were contaminated with trace amounts of lead.
Even with this information, the FDA says they are “evaluating whether it should recommend an upper limit.” The last time the FDA passed a bill regulating the safety of cosmetic products? 1938. That’s over 80 years ago.
I’m not trying to shame or scare anyone: I used to believe heavy metals weren’t an issue. But once you know about heavy metal exposure and how they get into your system, you can’t forget it.
But Aren’t Heavy Metals Everywhere?
Yes, heavy metals can be literally everywhere, including in the water and air, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t proactively reduce our exposure to them.
The type and frequency of exposure is pivotal to the development of toxicity. So take a moment and think about how many personal care products you use each day:
- Floss, toothpaste, mouthwash
- Facewash, toner, serum, moisturizer, sunscreen
- Body wash, shaving cream, body lotion
- Shampoo, conditioner, leave-in treatment, volumizing spray, hairspray
- Primer, concealer, foundation, highlighter, eye shadow, blush, bronzer, eyeliner, brow gel, mascara, lipstick, gloss
If even half of those products are contaminated and you’re using them everyday, you can experience chronic exposure to heavy metals overtime.
This doesn’t even consider all the other sources you might encounter in the day—from cleaning products to air pollution.
According to Chris Kresser, it’s possible that exposure to heavy metals via skin versus eating/drinking is more dangerous. The gut has a detox process for heavy metals, whereas the skin doesn’t have the same detox abilities. Heavy metals absorbed through transdermal application (via personal care products) can go straight into the bloodstream.
Natural Cosmetics Are Not the Answer
Most “natural” cosmetics like mineral makeups are made primarily from clay and talc. These mineral ingredients are often contaminated with heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and cadmium during the mining and manufacturing process. Those contaminants then “hitch a ride” into your makeup bag via powders like blush, or through the beautiful red color of your lipstick.
I don’t think natural cosmetic companies are knowingly or maliciously using contaminated source materials. But if they’re aren’t proactively testing both raw materials and end products, there is no way to know if the product is safe or not.
More Expensive, More Problems?
Just like natural ingredients, synthetic ingredients used in pricey cosmetics can also be easily contaminated with heavy metals during the manufacturing process. And because fancy formulas tend to have a longer ingredient list, there’s a greater chance for potential exposure.
Because safety isn’t a major selling point for high-end cosmetics, they’re actually even LESS likely to be tested for dangerously high levels of heavy metals.
In fact, the FDA conducted a survey of heavy metals in cosmetics, and found that arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead, mercury, and nickel were present in unsafe amounts in both luxury AND budget brands. The surveys also showed that products such as eye shadows, blushes, and compact powders contained more heavy metals than other types of cosmetics.
Cleaning up Your Makeup Bag
All types of makeup, whether natural or high-end, may contain heavy metals such as lead, aluminum, cadmium, arsenic, or mercury, to name a few. Heavy metals will not be listed on the ingredients list because they are contaminants.
Because there is so little regulation by the FDA, it is up to us to figure out whether or not brands do additional testing for heavy metals. Unless a company is actively testing and looking for heavy metals, they may have no idea that their cosmetics are tainted with harmful metals.
To make this process easier for you, here are a few quick tips for how to figure out if your makeup contains heavy metals:
- Look for brands that disclose all of the ingredients in their products publicly (including those as part of “fragrance”) and actively test ingredients for heavy metals. Companies that recognize the importance of testing raw materials and/or finished products will proactively display this information on their website. Simply being “FDA compliant” does NOT ensure safety, as there is little to no regulation on cosmetic products. The brands I have researched and purchase from are Beautycounter, Primally Pure, and Jane Iredale.
- Researching a specific brand? Search Google for the beauty brand’s name and “heavy metals” or “safety testing” and see what kind of results you get. If you can’t find information about ingredients or how they test for contaminants, reach out to the company personally and ask for information about what kind of additional testing they do on ingredients and/or finished products.
- Check out the EWG’s Skin Deep database for unbiased cosmetic safety reviews.
- Stop using antiperspirants as they all contain aluminum. There are many safe deodorants that work great! I personally love Primally Pure’s Charcoal Deodorant.
- Check my list of 10 Harmful Ingredients to Avoid in Makeup and Skin Care Products for more insight on how to make healthful decisions when purchasing personal care products.
Over the past two years, I’ve switched myself and my family over to all cosmetics that are tested for safety, and the majority of the products I use are from Beautycounter.
I love that they have set their own allowable limits (lower than the FDA) for heavy metals and actively test products every step of the way in manufacturing to ensure finished products don’t contain dangerous levels of heavy metals.
When I’m wearing Beautycounter, I know I’m safe—and using products that actually work. After years of using a variety of natural brands and always feeling like my skin was terrible, I switched to Beautycounter (specifically, the Countertime anti-aging line) and haven’t looked back.
Want to know more about safer brands, cosmetics, and cleaning products? Join my Safer Beauty Tribe here! I send out exclusive information (pretty hefty emails all about safe skin care, beauty, and household products!) and do promotions and giveaways.