Does wearing lipstick protect you from cancer?

woman applying lipstick
Is lipstick helpful or harmful once you step outside? See more getting beautiful skin pictures.
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Skin cancer is currently the most common form of cancer in the U.S. [source: Centers for Disease Control]. And rates are rising: Cases of melanoma of the skin in men increased 7.7 percent per year between 2003 and 2005, while cases in women increased 2.9 percent per year between 1993 and 2005 [source: Centers for Disease Control]. Many people know that an important step in preventing skin cancer is to apply sunblock to exposed skin. And there are many foundations, or bases, that include sun protection factor (SPF) levels for the face. In fact, the Skin Cancer Foundation encourages women to use makeup as one of many lines of defense against ultraviolet (UV) rays. The lips, however, are often overlooked when it comes to sun protection. This is problematic, because your lips are comprised of the most vulnerable skin on your face and contain almost no melanin, the compound that not only determines skin color but protects us from the sun's harmful rays.

But when it comes to protecting your lips from skin cancer, is lipstick a friend or foe? The experts say the answer is both. Any lipstick containing an SPF of 15 or higher is going to help protect your lips, and matte or opaque lipsticks are better than no protection. However, shimmery lipsticks and glosses are not only unhelpful in protecting your lips; they may also be harmful. These lipstick styles have an effect similar to baby oil in that they attract UV rays. So far, a direct link between glossy lipstick and skin cancer hasn't been found, but many dermatologists warn against applying it to the delicate skin on your lips.


Is skin cancer the only danger lipstick potentially poses? Are there dangerous ingredients lurking in lipstick that can cause cancer? On the next page, we'll look at some shocking new findings about modern lipstick.



Lead in Lipstick

woman applying lipstick
There's no evidence that lead in lipstick leads to cancer.
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It's been said that beauty is pain. Throughout history, that theory has been tested time and again. From early Egyptian times to the Elizabethan period and beyond, women have sought to create aesthetic ideals with makeup. More often than not, the makeup that was used contained harmful -- even poisonous -- ingredients.

These days, however, the cosmetic industry is well-regulated. The cosmetics industry has been under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since 1938. It's important to note that, unlike the requirements the agency has for drugs, biologics and medical devices, the FDA does not require pre-market approval for cosmetic products or ingredients. The FDA will, however, investigate adulterated or misbranded products and take legal action -- such as halting supplies or pursuing a criminal investigation -- when necessary. Makeup consumers are therefore generally confident that the makeup they apply to their faces contains safe, tested ingredients. In fact, if you wear makeup, chances are you've never worried about the safety of it at all -- at least not until recent studies began casting doubts on a product many women use daily.


A study by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently warned that there was lead in 20 different lipsticks they had analyzed. The FDA research determined that lead levels in these lipsticks were more than ten times higher than the lead standard for candy. While exposure to lead is considered unsafe -- particularly in pregnant women -- there are no documented cases of medical complications from wearing lipstick. So, the urban legend that you can get cancer from the lead in lipstick is untrue. In fact, cancer isn't even considered one of the effects of lead exposure [source: National Safety Council].

For lots more information on lipstick and skin care, see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Skin Cancer Statistics." June 12, 2009. (Jan. 19, 2010)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Skin Cancer Trends." June 12, 2009. (Jan. 19, 2010)
  • MSNBC. "Not just lip service: Gloss can invite skin cancer." April 30, 2008. (Jan. 19, 2010)
  • National Safety Council. "Lead Poisoning." Dec. 23, 2004. (Jan. 19, 2010)
  • Skin Cancer Foundation. "Sun Protection and Makeup." (Jan. 19, 2010)
  • The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. "FDA Study: Lead Levels in Lipstick Much Higher than Previously Expected." Sept. 1, 2009. (Jan. 19, 2010)
  • WebMD. "History of Makeup." Sept. 19, 2009. (Jan. 19, 2010)