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Youth Radio’s Lipstick Diaries: The Ugly Side of Beauty

Joi Morgan wanted to find out more about what was in her lipgloss (Youth Radio’s Brett Myers)

By Joi Morgan

One thing I know for sure, my friends and I count on the perfect lip gloss to set off our looks—whether we’re heading to class or a night out. Right now I’m totally into bubblegum pink. But I was surprised to learn what’s in these tubes!

Teenage girls spend nearly $14 a month on cosmetics. That’s more than even their 18-24 year old peers, according to a recent Youth Beauty Market Report. That’s one reason why researchers at the University of California, Berkeley collected popular lip products from a youth group in Oakland. Dr. Katherine Hammond, an environmental health scientist, led the investigation testing the lipsticks and glosses.

“We were looking at eight metals and what we particularly found were that cadmium, chromium, manganese and aluminum were present at levels that could actually rise to the level of some concern,” she said.

Consumer advocacy groups and the Food and Drug Administration, the agency that regulates make-up, have both found lead in cosmetics—but disagree about whether the concentrations are harmful or not.

Hammond said, “The fact that these chemicals and metals were there does not surprise me, I had some suspicion that they might be.” She added, “On the other hand that they reached the levels that we might be concerned, that did somewhat did surprise me.”

The Personal Care Products Council stands by the safety of their products.  But as a teenager who wears a lot of make-up, how much metal am I actually exposing myself to?

Hammond counted that on average a person applies lip products 2-3 times a day. But when it comes to maintaining my look, it takes more than 2-3 touch-ups! I wanted to be sure, so I walked around with a bulky recorder and mic around my neck, looking like a dork, for a couple of days, capturing every time I put on my lip gloss.

I was sitting on the couch in my living room, getting ready to walk out the door in the morning, when I applied a pretty pink punch shade for the first time.  By the time on got on the train to ride to work, around noon, I had already hit Hammond’s daily average.

I counted 11 lipstick touch-ups by the end of that Friday night. When I kept track again on Saturday, I reapplied 20 times, which is the norm for a night out with my girls. That seems like a lot. But kids aren’t the only ones who re-apply all day long. I asked two ladies at the hair shop across the street from my office, Rashida and Gracie, how often they apply their lip gloss.  Rashida said, “On a good day where I think I’m looking real good, I’ll say, maybe every hour?” Her friend Gracie explained, “Because my profession causes me to talk so much, I am a mother and I talk so much and I eat.  I probably apply my lip gloss every 20-30 minutes.”

I wanted to know: how much is too much? So I asked the Food and Drug Administration spokesperson on cosmetics, Tamara Ward.

Ward said, “One of the things we’d like our consumers to know is that unlike drugs, cosmetic products do not receive premarket approval.” That means manufacturers are responsible for making sure their product is safe and the government steps in when there’s a problem.

But when I looked for a safety guideline on my lip gloss, the only directions I could find said, “apply as needed.” Is that a government recommendation?

Ward said no. “’As needed is vague, but it is the choice of consumer.”

I get that it’s my choice. At least now, in California, The Department of Public Health has set up a website to actually tell us what’s in our lipstick and shampoo. So maybe I’ll take that information to the cosmetics aisle next time I’m looking for a new shade of babydoll pink lip-gloss to match the bronzy-gold around my eyes.

Dig deeper into the Ugly Side of Beauty with our interactive display that tells you the health concerns with other cosmetic products– created by Youth Radio’s new team of youth programmers and journalists– The Innovation Lab