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Peeling Back the Curtain: All About Heavy Metals in Colour Cosmetics

Beauty marketing claims may lead consumers to believe that “natural” means “safe”—but that isn’t always the case, and heavy metals are a prime example. These naturally occurring elements (arsenic, cadmium, lead, etc.) are plentiful within the earth, but maybe harmful to our health depending on various factors such as route of exposure and quantity—and unfortunately they may be present in colour cosmetics.

That’s why Beautycounter is tackling this issue head-on. We believe that safer products are built on a foundation of transparency—and we’re using the launch of our very own in-house product testing laboratory as an opportunity to share our safety standards. In the first of a series of posts, “Transparency in Action” will show you how Beautycounter is leading industry efforts in this area.

How do heavy metals end up in colour cosmetics in the first place?

Heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and mercury are not intentionally added to beauty products. These metals are often present in raw materials and naturally mined colours that eventually become ingredients in colour cosmetics. In other words, they make their way into products by tagging along with other ingredients as contaminants.

Just like gold, heavy metals are distributed throughout the ground in highly variable and often unpredictable ways. That makes it pretty difficult to know where they will be found and in what concentrations (so it’s not as simple as finding a “clean” source, unfortunately). So, when other ingredients like colours are mined, unwanted heavy metals may be inadvertently pulled from the earth as well. This means that using only naturally derived colours doesn’t necessarily mean a product is inherently safer.

What can we do about unwanted heavy metals in colour cosmetics?

As with the safety and sustainability of our products, Beautycounter takes a leading approach to address this issue.

We use innovative formulas.

Our colour cosmetics include a blend of rigorously screened, naturally derived and synthetic colourants. We found that this blend helps minimize the amount of unwanted heavy metals that can make their way into products, as we continue to strive for the safest formulas possible. Fun fact: the European Union allows 153 colourants in colour cosmetics, the United States 65, and Beautycounter? We currently have only approved 18 colourants for use in our products.

We take product testing very seriously.

We test the ingredients used in our colour cosmetics and finished cosmetic products obsessively—multiple times—before they go to market. We only use validated test methods and the most advanced laboratory equipment available (Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometer, ICP-MS). This allows us to test for heavy metals at concentrations ten times lower than what is standard practice in the beauty industry (1 part per billion vs 10 parts per million).

To break this down a step further, we check for heavy metals in products at the lowest concentrations scientifically possible through at least a 1ppb detection limit, whereas some equipment has detection limits of 10 ppm. Under this scenario, anything less than 10 ppm would appear as “passing” (or, in scientific lingo, “non-detect”). It is common to use less precise testing if testing is performed at all. This is why it’s critically important to understand how brands are testing for heavy metals since catchy headlines don’t tell the full story.

We take action.

If our test results show heavy metals at concentrations that concern us, we immediately investigate and address potential contamination issues with our suppliers, sometimes halting the production or launch of a product. We have a state-of-the-art, in-house lab (allowing for nimble testing throughout the product development process, rather than a “one and done” approach) and we rely on third-party tests to validate our results throughout the year. Our third-party testing facility tests in “duplicates,” a scientific term to describe testing each product twice, to account for variability in how heavy metals may be distributed.

Curious to see some test results yourself? You can view recent test results here.

Beautycounter sets strict standards.

We use the best available science to establish limits that reflect the specific characteristics of different heavy metal contaminants. Our team of scientists uses a variety of criteria to set our internal limits and we review these with external experts annually.

We fight for stronger regulations to help protect everyone.

We actively advocate for more stringent federal regulations to reduce heavy metal exposure across the industry (you can read an op-ed from our CEO on this topic here). Our CEO recently testified before the House of Representatives asking Congress for more regulations of the beauty industry.

What do Beautycounter’s heavy metals test results reveal?

While some companies make claims to be “heavy metal free” or “lead-free,” our testing shows such claims cannot be supported since heavy metals are naturally occurring contaminants in colourants. But that does not stop us from trying to bring a new level of rigour to the beauty industry.

Recent test results from Beautycounter product testing can be viewed here. For extra credit, you can also view our talc test results here.

Table 1. Average Heavy Metals Concentrations and Limits (ppm) from 2019 colour cosmetic products testing data

Heavy MetalAverage Beautycounter Concentrations
(ppm)1  
FDA Regulatory Limits (ppm)2,3
Arsenic0.13.0
Antimony0.2None
Cadmium0.02None
Lead (lip)0.210.0 (all products)
Lead (non-lip)0.610.0 (all products)
Mercury0.011.0

1 Based on third-party testing data for Beautycounter colour cosmetic products made and tested in 2019.

2FDA Regulatory Limits shown are for concentrations in raw ingredients.

3 The FDA also has limits established for heavy metal impurities in colour additives as ingredients, which are not shown. Source: https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/potential-contaminants-cosmetics/fdas-testing-cosmetics-arsenic-cadmium-chromium-cobalt-lead-mercury-and-nickel-content#limits

As you can see, these average concentrations are also well below FDA limits.

Not surprisingly, given the challenges in the sourcing of colours described above, we may detect concentrations of heavy metals in batches of products that exceed our own internal limits. These situations are more rare than frequent and are also unpredictable. Even samples were taken from the same product but in different spots can yield different levels of heavy metals when tested. For example, taking samples from opposite corners of an eyeshadow pan can give you different concentrations when heavy metals are present.

If our testing reveals a product that exceeds our internal limits, we prevent it from being sold (even if it meets all relevant regulatory limits).

How do Beautycounter’s heavy metals limits compare to common industry practice?

You may notice that heavy metal concentrations and limits for other brands of colour cosmetics are missing from the table above. It is not industry practise to publicly disclose test results or publish heavy metal concentrations allowed in most brands’ products. In some cases, we understand that brands may simply be relying on guarantees from ingredient suppliers instead of conducting testing on their own products.

Looking ahead

Beautycounter is doing everything possible to reduce heavy metals exposure from colour cosmetics—and we will continue to improve our efforts. Most importantly, we want you to be in the know about everything we do because understanding the “whys” and “hows” helps you make the best decisions for yourself and your family. This is the power of transparency.


The post Peeling Back the Curtain: All About Heavy Metals in Color Cosmetics appeared first on Beautycounter.

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