Sharron Camaratta bites her lips. She never thought of this as a major problem until 2007. That’s when she read that certain brands of lipsticks contain lead, a substance that can cause brain and nervous system damage.

So she stopped wearing the problematic brands — which a 2007 test by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics identified as including L’Oreal, CoverGirl, and Dior — until a year or two ago. Lulled into a sense of safety, she once again started making lipstick purchases based on personal preference and little else.

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But that changed when Camaratta discovered a May 2013 study by the University of California, Berkeley, in which researchers found lead in lipstick. Again.

The researchers tested 32 lipstick brands commonly found in drugstores and department stores and found lead in 24 of them, as well as other toxic heavy metals. The study’s authors note that some occurred “at levels that could possibly have an effect in the long term.”

Specifically, they found that 68 percent of the lipsticks exceeded the acceptable daily levels for chromium, a suspected carcinogen, and 22 percent exceeded recommended levels for manganese, linked to nervous system damage. While the lead exposure from the lipsticks wouldn’t exceed recommended exposure levels for adults, no amount of lead exposure is considered safe for children, who often play with makeup.

If you think that the government is keeping us safe, you’re wrong — and you’re not alone.

“I had figured the government would have cracked down on companies putting lead in lipstick after that first came to light in 2007,” says Camaratta. “I mean, come on! Lead can cause brain damage, and it could be on my face every day? Something is obviously broken when it comes to keeping us safe from potential harm.”

That “something” is the ability of the FDA and EPA to meaningfully regulate chemicals that are in the cleaners we use in our homes, the toys our children play with, or the body care products we use daily.

The problem dates back to 1976, when the Toxic Substances Control Act went into effect. It gave the federal government the right to track the nearly 85,000 chemicals in use in this country — and little else.

Under this law, the EPA, which oversees the use individual chemicals in the United States, can’t take action to protect the public from a potentially harmful chemical until after it’s been introduced to the market and after it’s been found to cause “serious harm.”

Proving that harm has been notoriously difficult. The government has issued bans on only five chemicals since 1976, and four of those, including the one on asbestos, are partial bans.

While the EPA regulates individual chemicals, it’s the FDA that oversees body care products like deodorant, soap, shaving cream, makeup, and more. The agency doesn’t review ingredient lists on body care items. Therefore, the majority of the products we’re slathering on our bodies every day have never been independently tested for safety.

If you, like many people, think that should change, call your legislators today and ask them to support the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2013. This bill would do much to strengthen current chemical safety laws, making companies prove that a given chemical is safe before it could be used in toys, shampoo, and makeup.

While the Berkeley study didn’t identify the lipstick brands that contained toxins, consumers can avoid the worst brands of any body care product by taking a cue from Camaratta.

“I now look every bit of makeup I buy up on,” she says. It’s a database containing safety data on over 66,000 products and ingredients.

Because looking your best shouldn’t mean coating your body in toxins.

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Tracy Fernandez Rysavy

Tracy Fernandez Rysavy is editor of the Green American, Green America’s bi-monthly sustainable-lifestyles magazine.

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