The debate seems to resurface every few years. Do some lipsticks contain lead? If so, is the amount so negligible that consumers have nothing to be concerned about? Or will all those years of applying lipstick several times a day add up to a worrisome accumulation of a dangerous substance?

On one side are advocacy groups and doctors who insist that, over time, those who wear lipstick containing lead are at risk of absorbing high levels of a neurotoxin that may cause behavioral, learning and other problems. On the other side are the Food and Drug Administration and outside experts who say that any traces of lead that do exist are too minute to cause harm.

In February, the debate reared its head again when the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of health and environmental groups, issued a plea to the F.D.A. to release information the agency had accumulated on the amount of lead in lipstick. The study was conducted in response to an independent analysis in 2007, paid for by the safe cosmetics group, which found that one-third of 33 lipsticks had lead in excess of 0.1 parts per million, the federal limit for candy.

Among the worst offenders were with a lead content of 0.65 parts per million. Price had nothing to do with lead levels: less expensive brands, like a $1.99 tube of another brand contained no lead, whereas a $24 tube of an expensive brand contained 0.21 p.p.m.

Stacy Malkan, a founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, said that lead is often present in the pigment of the reddest lipsticks. The campaign urged manufacturers to reformulate their products and called for the F.D.A. to set a safety standard for lead in lipstick. Last November, Senators John Kerry, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein asked the F.D.A. to do the same.

In fact, there are no F.D.A. standards limiting lead and other toxins in lipstick. The agency leaves it up to manufacturers to decide which safety and efficacy tests to perform on products. Cosmetics companies are required to list their “intended” ingredients on labels. But lead would be considered an “unintended” byproduct of the manufacturing process. (To combat this, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, has a consumer database at where it lists the ingredients in more than 42,000 products.)

When asked if consumers should be worried about lead in lipstick, several doctors, including Dr. Sean Palfrey, a professor of pediatrics and public health at Boston University and the medical director of the Boston Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, said there may be reason for concern. “Yes, these are small amounts and if you licked your lips once you probably would not cause damage — at least not to adults,” he said, adding, “Lead is a substance that builds up in the body over time, so small amounts applied daily can add up and stay in our bodies.”

Dr.David Bellinger, a researcher at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health who has conducted studies on the health risks of very low lead exposures, agreed that “no level of lead exposure appears to be ‘safe.’ ”
“There’s lead in lipstick, and you put in on your lips, on your mouth and you can eat it,” said Danielle Carro, a director at an organic marketing company in New York.

Organic personal-care products sales reached about $443 million in 2008, a 19 percent jump over 2007, according to the Organic Trade Association, an industry group. And in September, a national group promoting a healthier lifestyle, began a “Lips Against Lead” campaign to ban lead in lipstick.

 “I just picture a little room where the industry men are saying ‘get the cheapest junk you can and put it in the box,’ ” said Judi Shils, the executive director of the group. “I think consumers are in such a good place right now because everybody is paying attention and consumers are demanding their right to health, as they should.”

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