Does Lipstick Contain Lead? 'GMA' Tests Lipsticks and Lip Glosses

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ABC News' Elisabeth Leamy and Vanessa Weber report:

In countless memorable movie scenes, when the characters apply lipstick, it transforms them.

But have you ever thought about what's in lipstick? "Good Morning America" wanted to know if lipstick contains lead, and whether it would be a problem if it did, so we commissioned our own tests.

We bought 22 different lipsticks and lip glosses and took them to Underwriters Laboratories for lead testing.

UL used the government's own test method and found that 12 of our 22 samples - or 55 percent - contained trace amounts of lead. That may sound worrisome, but it's not illegal because there is no federal lead limit for cosmetics.

"The industry creates its own standards and they have been abiding by them pretty regularly," Roy Lamothe, UL's general manager, North America, told "GMA."

We found lead levels ranging from no detectable level to 3.22 parts per million. That's below the limit for lipstick in California, which is 5 parts per million, and Europe, which is 10 parts per million. And it's progress, because it's less lead than when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tested lipsticks in 2010. At that time, its highest lead level was 7 parts per million int he products we tested. But anti-lead activists say manufacturers should remove all lead from their lipsticks.

"That's the upside of your survey results. Clearly the concerning part is that more than half of the lipsticks do contain lead, but half of them don't, proving that it's possible to manufacture a lipstick without lead," said Janet Nudelman of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

Activists warn that a woman wearing lipstick can pass lead to her baby internally when she's pregnant, but nobody knows if the amount is significant. The FDA considers small amounts of lead in lipstick safe, but another government agency - the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - says there is no safe level in a child's body.

"What we know now is that even the lowest levels of lead can harm your IQ, your behavior, your ability to learn, so we want to make sure that it is out of everything that is in the environment of children," Dr. Sean Palfrey, medical director for the Boston Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, a joint initiative by the Boston Public Health Commission, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Department of Pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, told "GMA."

The cosmetics industry counters that worrying about trace amounts of lead in lipstick distracts from other, much greater risks.

"If you were serious about the public health aspects of lead poisoning you would not be looking at lipstick," said Dr. Halyna Breslawec, chief scientist for the Personal Care Products Council, the national trade association for the cosmetic and personal care products industry. "You would be looking at locations where children live. Do they live near hazardous waste dumps - are they chewing lead-containing paint fragments?"

If you want to avoid lead in lipstick, it's tough to do. In our tests, we compared department store lipstick to drugstore lipstick, reds to pinks, Asian-made to American-made, lipstick to lip gloss, and we found no pattern that predicted where the lead was.