Sunday, May 26, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Exposure to lead through cosmetics should be a big concern

This year, the slogan for International Lead Prevention Poisoning Week is ‘Working together for a world without lead paint’
Update : 27 Dec 2021, 04:02 PM

There are many reasons for being cautious about using cosmetics. But the most pressing among these concerns should be the presence of lead. This means your lipsticks, mascaras, and sindoor could possibly contain lead, among many other beauty products.

The public health concern arises from use of these products, specifically when they are used several times a day over many years. The concern is that this can add up to a worrisome accumulation of a dangerous substance.

It may be noted that lead has been banned in paint since 1978 because of its toxicity at low levels, but it still shows up in small amounts in some of the best-selling cosmetic brands. Lead exposure to cosmetic products can be particularly harmful to children because they absorb up to 50% of ingested lead compared to the older children. Young children can also unintentionally ingest more lead in drinking water, the soil they walk or crawl on, the food they eat, the paint on the walls, the air they breathe and even in the toys they play with.

Exposure to lead during pregnancy can affect a child’s growth and their ability to see, hear and learn leading to behavioural difficulties. Pooled data indicated that children with blood lead levels (BLLs) 2.4-10 μg/dL (microgram per decilitre) had reduced IQ in exposed people. The exposed children were also found to be behind in formal education and later earn less money over their lifetimes.

The US public health agency Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has lowered the permissible BLL level from 60 to 5 μg/dL. While there is no proven “safe” lead exposure level, especially in children or oil, the severity of the problem does increase with the increasing levels of lead exposure and consumption.

Lead is a toxic metal found ubiquitously – it is being used to produce paints, gasoline, cosmetics, stained glass, ammunition, toys, among other materials. Many developed countries banned its use in the production of paints many years ago. But it remains an unaddressed issue in the low-income countries (LIC).

Therefore, this year, the slogan for International Lead Prevention Poisoning Week is ‘Working together for a world without lead paint.’ The World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Environment Program (UNEP), governments, civil society organizations, health partners, industry and others will organize activities and events during the eighth International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week (October 24-30).  

Kajal, Kohl and Surma are extensively used as traditional eye cosmetics in South Asian countries including Bangladesh. In fact, putting black makeup around a baby's eyes is a common tradition where parents think these eyeliners can protect the eyes or improve sight. These cosmetics contain galena (lead sulfide) as one of the main components and minimum (lead oxide-Pb3O4).

Careless application of kajal may cause absorption of lead through the conjunctiva. Sometimes adulterated or defective manufacturing procedures of such cosmetics can introduce lead into the ingredients, enabling their ingestion and entrance into the body. Furthermore, adulteration of these cosmetics is also very common in the local market of Bangladesh and India.

Vermilion (traditionally known as sindoor) is a brilliant scarlet powder used during Hindu religious and cultural ceremonies. Some manufacturers use lead tetroxide to give the sindoor a distinctive red colour.

The orange or red pigment is used on both children and adults and is intended for topical use only. There are many manufacturers of sindoor and not all products labeled sindoor contain lead. Lead may be added as a red pigment. A product may contain high levels of lead even if lead is not listed as an ingredient on the label.

It is difficult for users of these products to tell the difference between safe and dangerous brands. When a person uses these products, some of the sindoor can get onto the hands. Lead can enter the body if the user puts their hands in their mouth. There have also been lead poisoning cases where people used sindoor as a food coloring.

Lead is only authorized in low-middle income countries (LMIC) for industrial applications. However, the recent findings of lead contaminated cosmetics shed light on the fact that it is frequently present in our day to day life and lifestyle habits. 

There are many sources and more contaminations along with less monitoring and control in LMIC than in higher income countries. Therefore, lead poisoning mounts a multi-pronged and enduring attack on children’s health and development during their vulnerable and formative years leading to devastating lifelong effects. 

Vigilance and maintaining protective regulations in the cosmetics production industry is key to avoid devastating consequences. Eradication is needed to combat all sources of contamination through monitoring policies. Therefore, we need strict commitment in the reduction of lead exposure where governments should take urgent action to make sure all children are being fed and educated in a safe, secure, and healthy environment.


Dr Mahfuzar Rahman is Country Director, Pure Earth Bangladesh. Dr Rahman is an environmental epidemiologist, earlier have worked with icddrb, Columbia University, Brac and UNICEF. Dr Rahman was ranked among the top 2% of scientists in the world by Stanford University, USA. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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