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

Posted on 01/08/2020 by James | 0

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 may be
harmful to our health depending on various factors such as route of exposure
and quantity—and unfortunately they may be present in color 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 color
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 colors that eventually become ingredients in
color 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 colors are mined, unwanted
heavy metals may be inadvertently pulled from the earth as well. This means
that using only naturally derived colors doesn’t necessarily mean a product is
inherently safer. 

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

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

We use innovative formulas.

Our color cosmetics include a blend of rigorously
screened, naturally derived and synthetic colorants. 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 colorants in color cosmetics, the United States 65,
and Beautycounter? We currently have only approved 18 colorants for use in our

We take product testing very seriously.

We test the ingredients used in our color
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 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 colorants. But that
does not stop us from trying to bring a new level of rigor to the beauty

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 color cosmetic products testing data

Heavy Metal Average Beautycounter Concentrations
FDA Regulatory Limits (ppm)2,3
Arsenic 0.1 3.0
Antimony 0.2 None
Cadmium 0.02 None
Lead (lip) 0.2 10.0 (all products)
Lead (non-lip) 0.6
10.0 (all products)
Mercury 0.01 1.0

1 Based on third-party testing data for Beautycounter color 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 color additives as ingredients, which are not shown. Source:

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

Not surprisingly, given the challenges in the
sourcing of colors 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
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

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 color cosmetics are missing from the table
above. It is not industry practice 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 color 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



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