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Are the metals found in your make-up harming you?

TextSapphi Littleton

From lead to mercury to zinc, we take a closer look at the metals in your everyday make-up to find out more

Heavy metals including lead, arsenic, mercury, aluminium, zinc and chromium can all be found in varying personal care products from lipstick to deodorant. Used for their bulking, colouring and bacteria killing qualities, heavy metals have their place. But, with some of these metals thought to be carcinogens and others linked to hormone disruption, are they really safe? We took a closer look at the metals in your everyday make-up and have put together a list of what to be mindful of and what to flat out avoid.


Found in:
Eye products such as mascara and eyeliner and skin lightening products.

Why is it used?
It is rarely added into products but when it is, the guideline amount is 1 part-per-million - not enough to have any kind of negative impact - this amount is allowed in the production of eye products as it can prevent bacteria and infection spreading from your eye to the product and vice versa.

If used within legal guidelines, mercury in your products is nothing to worry about and can actually prevent the spreading of bacteria. However, there has been an increase in concern around products being imported from countries where the regulations aren't as strict. Reports have included products sold on Amazon and eBay that have over 30,000 times of the legal mercury limit. Mercury in this quantity is highly toxic and could lead to skin irritation, rashes and discolouration of the skin. If enough is absorbed into the skin, you could suffer from mercury poisoning, which damages the kidneys and nervous system. Persistent use of products containing mercury can also damage the eyes, lungs, digestive and immune system.

How can it be avoided?
Make sure you know where your make-up comes from. All products made in the EU and the US should not contain unsafe levels of mercury. Mercury usually won’t be named on ingredients lists as it is a contaminant so look out for its other names too.

Ingredients to look out for:
Thimerosal and variants of this ingredient, Hg, mercuric iodide, mercurous chloride, quicksilver, cinnabaris or hydrargyri oxydum rubrum.


Found in:
Lipstick, lipgloss and lip liner.

Why is it used?
Lead can be found in lipstick, but only as a naturally occurring metal in colour additives, otherwise known as a contaminant. It is actually never used intentionally as an added ingredient in make-up.

The FDA guidelines suggest that make-up products should not contain more than 20 parts-per-million of lead. Any higher than this and lead can be dangerous. Lead is a known carcinogen and hormone disruptor, but the levels in your lipstick shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

How can it be avoided?
If you are worried about exposure to lead, stay away from coloured cosmetics in your everyday routine and save the lipstick for special occasions.  

Ingredients to look out for:
Thimerosal and variations of this ingredient. However, lead is usually a contaminant and not a main ingredient so you may not find it on ingredients lists.


Found in:
Deodorant, eyeshadow, lipstick.

Why is it used?
In coloured cosmetics, aluminium is used as a thickening agent and can prevent “bleeding” in lipsticks, for example. Aluminium is also used as an antiperspirant as aluminium salts dissolve in sweat and stop sweat flowing to the surface of the skin, as well as killing the bacteria that causes the sweaty smell.

Aluminium compounds vary in toxicity. Excessive antiperspirant use may irritate the sweat ducts and lead to potential infection and sensitive underarms. So far there has been no conclusive research on whether the constant application of antiperspirants containing aluminium is linked to an increase in breast cancer cells and the development of Alzheimer’s, although the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease has suggested that aluminium exposure "may be the single most aggravating and avoidable factor" of the disease. 

How can it be avoided?
Switch to an aluminium free deodorant to avoid irritation and limit your use of lipstick and eyeshadow if you’re concerned.

Ingredients to look out for:
Aluminum chloride, aluminum chlorohydrate, aluminum hydroxybromide, and aluminum zirconium.


Found in:
Sun cream, soap, body lotions, mineral make-up.

Why is it used?
Zinc is often used as a bulking agent that is added to products to increase their volume and in sun cream as it shields UVA and UVB rays.

Not all heavy metals are bad! Zinc is used as an antiseptic and a skin protectant, including in sun creams but also baby products such as nappy cream. There is no evidence that zinc is toxic in its natural form. EU guidelines state that a concentration of up to 25% of zinc in skincare and cosmetics does not pose any risk.

How can it be avoided?
Zinc has been used in skincare for thousands of years. First mentioned in Indian medical text, the Charaka Samhita in 500BC and in the Greek Dioscorides in the 1st Century AD, zinc has been used to cure a world of skin issues. No need to avoid it!

Ingredients to look out for:
Zinc oxide.


Found in:
Multiple make-up including lipstick and skincare and personal care products such as masks and moisturisers.

Why is it used?
Iron is often used to add colour to products, ranging from orange, red, yellow and black.

If used within specified limits, Iron Oxides are safe for use in coloured cosmetics and personal care products, including those used on the lips and around the eyes. Iron used in cosmetics made in the EU have to be labelled on the ingredient list of the product, using it’s CI (colour index) number.

How can it be avoided?
Iron is harmless when used correctly so no need to worry.

Ingredients to look out for:
CI 77489, CI 77491, CI 77492, and CI 77499.

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