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While it may be true that we’re never fully dressed without a smile, many women feel naked without a swab of colour or a dab of gloss on their lips. Since a woman who wears lipstick daily could swallow four pounds of it in her lifetime, it’s important to consider what goes into these colour sticks.
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Our love affair with lip colour can be traced to the ancient Egyptians, who used henna to paint their lips. Cleopatra wore lipstick made with a deep red pigment created by crushing cochineal beetles and blending the concoction into a base of ants. Other formulas used potentially toxic combinations of fucus-algin, iodine, and bromine mannite, and early shimmers were achieved with a substance called pearlescence found in fish scales.
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Fast-forward a few thousand years, and we have modern lipsticks containing a variety of waxes, oils, pigments, and emollients. Common waxes such as carnauba and candililla are used to create the shape of our lipsticks. Candililla wax is produced by boiling plants in water containing sulfuric acid and skimming the wax as it rises to the surface. Beeswax, another commonly used wax, could be a concern for vegans and those with bee allergies.
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Oils and fats used to pretty up our puckers range from nourishing castor oil (from the castor bean), olive oil, and cocoa butter, to petrochemicals like mineral oil and petrolatum. Unfortunately, petrochemical oils can contain carcinogens such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and xenoestrogens. Also known as estrogen-mimics, xenoestrogens have been linked to breast cancer and other reproductive cancers. Additional concerns about our lipstick come from the phthalates used for fragrance or flavour. Phthalates are also xenoestrogenic and should be avoided at all costs. Frosted or shiny lipsticks typically contain bismuth oxychloride, a compound with low toxicity when swallowed and linked to allergic skin reactions when applied topically.
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If you enjoy bright fuchsia, orange, or burgundy on your mouth, your lipstick likely contains chemical dyes. Common colours include D&C (certified by the US Food and Drug Administration) Orange No. 17 and D&C Red No. 40. Although currently these colours are generally regarded as safe, over the years many D&C colours have been linked to cancer and banned. If you are going for a natural look in the light brown, pink, and coral range, check your health products store for a lipstick created with natural plant or mineral-based pigments such as annatto, turmeric, and ochre. Believe it or not, Cleopatra’s cochineal beetles still provide plenty of powerful reds.
The best way to choose your lipstick, as well as many of your other personal care products, is to be a label reader. Choose products with the simplest ingredient list so you can look fabulous and feel even better about your purchase.
For a comprehensive list of ingredients used in personal care products and make-up, see Living Beauty: Feel Great, Look Fabulous & Live Well.
By Lisa Petty
Originally published in Alive