After a petition, the FDA is set to ban the use of a lead-based neurotoxin which has been used as a color additive in some hair dyes for four decades.

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Studies found a lead-based ingredient used in some hair dyes was capable of contaminating the hands of its users and was unsafe for children. Getty Images

Have you read the labels on your cosmetics lately?

It may surprise you that lead and other toxic substances can still find their way into your household through products you use every day.

However, the FDA recently moved to remove lead acetate from hair dye, forty years after it was initially deemed safe for use in cosmetics.

“We now know that the approved use of lead acetate in adult hair dyes no longer meets our safety standard. Lead exposure can have serious adverse effects on human health, including for children who may be particularly vulnerable,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said in a press release.

The FDA was petitioned by consumer safety, environmental, and children’s advocacy groups to reconsider the use of lead acetate based on data compiled since 1980 that demonstrates its potential for harm.

According to the petition, lead acetate is:

  • readily absorbed through the skin
  • capable of traveling to various organs in the body, including the brain
  • reasonably believed to be carcinogenic
  • is a known neurotoxin

The FDA is giving companies one year from the date of their final rule to reformulate products that currently contain lead acetate.

Dr. Jacqueline Moline, chair of occupational medicine, epidemiology, and prevention at North Shore University Hospital, Manhasset, NY, praised the FDA’s action.

“I’m ecstatic that they are finally doing something about it. There’s no reason there should be lead in hair dye, especially if it’s a targeted product for people whose hair is graying, which means that they may have opportunity to be around children,” she told Healthline. “It’s not only protecting the individual using the hair dye, but also protecting the household.”

The FDA initially approved lead acetate for cosmetic use in 1980 when it was deemed safe based on the finding that it did not cause a “significant increase” in blood lead levels in trial participants.

Lead acetate is used in “progressive” hair dyes, products that gradually color gray hair. Progressive hair dyes are designed to be reapplied over a period of time, with each application darkening the hair further, until the desired color is reached.

Subsequent studies of these products found that due to regular reapplication, the dye was capable of contaminating the hands of its users, who then transferred it to different surfaces.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lead poisoning can lead to brain and nervous system damage, slowed growth, and learning disabilities.

The CDC has established that there is no safe level of exposure for lead.

“The brain is still developing in a child and therefore at higher risk,” said Dr. Michael Levine, chief of the toxicology division at the University of Southern California in the Department of Emergency Medicine.

Additionally, a child’s smaller stature means that they will have a greater exposure due to their body weight.

The potential for exposure in a child via a family member using a lead-containing dye is worrisome.

Contact through rubbing or touching of the hair could transfer it. Additionally, a small child could then put their fingers in their mouth, further increasing the exposure.

The bottom line, says Moline, is that today there is no reason to choose a cosmetic with lead in it.

“When there are other products on the market that don’t have a neurotoxin, a potential carcinogen, something that we know is hazardous, why should it still be available,” she said.

Lead exposure or blood lead levels (BLL) of individuals living in the United States have dropped significantly since the 1950s, but health officials want to ensure that they continue to do so.

“Lead levels are the lowest they’ve ever been,” said Levine.

Today the average BLL is around two micrograms per deciliter, compared to a measurement of around 15 in the 1970s.

For at least the last twenty years, the CDC identified a BLL of 10 or more in children as a “level of concern.” In 2012, the CDC updated their recommendations on BLL, decreasing it by half, ideally less than 5 micrograms per deciliter.

“We have progressive decline in what are potentially concerning [lead] levels,” said Levine.

However lead exposure still remains common from products including furniture, food, dietary supplements, and children’s toys.

Both Levine and Moline recommend that consumers avoid products containing lead in general since other options are available.

However, doing so isn’t always easy, especially if lead isn’t listed as an ingredient, which can happen with imported products from countries with less strict regulations on lead contamination.

The CDC recommends limiting children’s exposure to lead by keeping children away from paint products, and being aware of products at higher risk of lead contamination including imported candies, imported toys, imported cosmetics, and pottery.

“There’s no reason, really, any products that have lead should be sold. There are other pigments that can be used, there are other processes that can be used,” said Moline.

“If you don’t know what all the ingredients are, then you don’t know if they pose a health problem, then I would think twice about buying them,” she said.