Lip Service: the price we pay for beauty

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What’s in your lipstick?

On average, a woman will apply 9lbs of lipstick during her lifetime – a shocking 30 per cent of which will be ingested. With the majority of lipsticks being packed full of toxic metals and carcinogens; we need to consider more than colour, texture and durability when choosing lip products.

It’s not just the chemicals that are off putting. Sperm whale excrement, ground fish scales and snail slime are included amongst the blend of pesticides, heavy metals and synthetics. So why do we apply chemical-laced products to our mouths? Where did our beauty ideal of coloured lips stem from? Which ingredients do we need to steer clear of and what are the alternatives?

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The history of painted lips

The first records of adding colour to lips dates back 5,000 years when ancient Sumerian people would use crushed gemstones to adorn their faces (predominantly on the lips and around the eye area). In ancient Egypt, lipstick did not signify gender, but was linked to social status. Cleopatra was known to redden her lips using crushed bugs. The dye they used (formed from fucus-algin, iodine and bromine mannite) caused severe illness. An iridescent quality was brought about by the use of fish scales.

Solid lipsticks only came into play during the Islamic Golden Age, invented by the cosmetologist Abu al-Qasim al -Zahrawi. These moulded perfumed sticks were described in his notable work, Al-Tasrif.

In 16th century England, the application of makeup was restricted to male actors and upper class ladies. Powdered white faces provided the perfect contrast to the scarlet lips that were so fashionable at the time. The Elizabethan lipstick was reassuringly natural, formed from red plant extract and beeswax.

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By the 19th century, in England, the use of makeup was branded uncouth due to associations with actors and prostitutes. In 1850, the dangers of applying lead and vermillion to the skin were recognised. Lipstick had been something that had always been made at home, but by the end of the 19th century Guerlain were manufacturing silk paper wrapped commercial lipsticks using beeswax, castor oil and deer tallow. By 1921, the use of lipstick in portrait photography led to it becoming an acceptable and fashionable beauty product in everyday life. Elizabeth Arden and Estee Lauder started selling lipsticks in their salons. During this time, dark red shades were the most popular and came to represent the independence of the flappers of the era.
It was Elizabeth Arden who revolutionised the use of different lip colours in the 1930s. Lipstick was seen as a symbol of adult sexuality, and teenagers used it as a sign of rebellion. By the 1940s the general consensus was that men preferred a more natural look. Lipstick was once again associated with prostitution and magazine articles at the time suggested that lipstick could have a detrimental effect on a woman’s career and reputation. 1950s actresses such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor were instrumental in reclaiming the glamorous red lipstick look. Manufacturers pushed things further and started to produce more wearable everyday lipsticks in shades of peach, pink, lavender and white. These colours revolutionised the world of lipstick, making it more accessible for teenagers and taking it away from the world of prostitution and filmstars. By the 1960s lipstick was so acceptable that women who didn’t wear it were assumed to be gay or mentally ill!
The 1970s opened up the colour palette even more with experimental shades of violet, navy blue and lime greens taking centrestage. Black lipstick also saw its way onto the street (previously only seen in actresses in 1950’s horror films) and stayed until well into the 90s. The 1980s saw colour-changing mood lipsticks, and the 90s were more conservative with a fashion for muted neutrals and browns. In recent years pearlescent finishes, longlasting formulas, a whole spectrum of shades (from vibrant to nudes) and a range of applications have opened up the world of lipsticks.

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What’s in a lipstick?

So how do cosmetic companies get way with packing their lip products with such harmful chemicals? The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) are only legally required to approve colour additives and not the whole cosmetic product.

The basic ingredients in a lipstick tend to be the same; wax, oil, preservatives, antioxidants, colour and fragrance.

When purchasing a lipcolour, you’ll want to avoid:

Methylparaben – a common preservative. Restricted in the EU but popular in the US. Linked to cancer, disrupted endocrine function and toxicity. Labelled as “high hazard” by the Cosmetics Database.

Propylparaben – another preservative. Commonly used in cosmetics. Can lead to skin irritation and allergic reactions. Research also indicates a link to cancer and endocrine disruption. Labelled as a “moderate hazard” by the Cosmetics Database.

Retinyl Palmitate – a synthetic form of vitamin A that is associated with cancer, toxicity in pregnant women and a number of health complaints associated with the reproductive organs.


Colourants (eg. D&C Red 36 and D&C Red 22 Aluminium Lake) – typically tested on animals. Studies show a correlation between exposure to these colourants and damage to the nervous system, as well as other health complaints.

Tocopheryl Acetate/vitamin E acetate – A common ingredient in lipsticks, foundation and skin creams. Can cause burning, itching, hives and blisters, as well as being toxic in some cases.

Propylene/Butylene Glycol (PG) – PG is used frequently in cosmetics as it works as a humectant (slows moisture loss). It is used in lipsticks to keep skin supple and reduce flaking. It is also found as an ingredient in fertiliser and in automotive coolants and antifreeze. It has been linked to infertility and irritation to the eyes and skin.

Lead – Despite the historical evidence highlighting the dangers of the use of lead in cosmetics, it is still used as a colourant to this day. Red lipsticks contain the most harmful amounts of lead, which is especially harmful to pregnant women and infants. Lead ingestion can cause behaviour abnormalities and brain damage. Its side effects tend to be irreversible.

Mineral Oil – Helps to prevent moisture loss from the skin. Can also lead to blocked pores and disruptions in skin cell development and function. Many mineral oils also contain PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons) which are carcinogenic.

Coal Tar – Used as a colourant and to treat skin conditions, it is also considered “high hazard” by the EWG (Environmental Working Group). This carcinogen has associations with infertility and skin irritation.


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Viva La Green Revolution!

Fortunately, there is a wide array of lipsticks and cosmetics that avoid the use of synthetic ingredients and cut out chemicals. Using natural products not only lowers the risk of a variety of health issues, but they also offer some wonderful results. The natural alternatives are gentler on your skin, kinder to your body and much better for the environment.

This article first featured in the September 17 issue of Natural Mumma Magazine.


Beauty Blog

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