In the name of looking younger, men may be exposing themselves to dangerous amounts of lead.
In response, a group of consumer advocacy organizations is taking legal action to help prevent that.
The ingredient at the center of the group’s concern is a compound called lead acetate.
Lead acetate is a component in some “progressive” hair dyes, cosmetic products that are designed to gradually darken gray.
In February, several leading consumer groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund, Earthjustice, and the Environmental Working Group, filed a petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requesting the agency ban the use of lead acetate.
The compound, which is found in Youthair and Grecian Formula products, is considered a neurotoxin.
Neurotoxins can damage organ systems, but they are particularly destructive to the nervous system.
Prolonged exposure to lead can result in brain damage, nerve damage, and neurological disorders, among other problems.
Unborn babies, children, and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also labels lead acetate as a likely carcinogen.
Banned in Europe, allowed in America
The FDA approved lead acetate for cosmetic use in 1980.
To be approved as an additive, companies had to prove that lead acetate was safe under proper use circumstances.
During the study phase, blood samples were drawn from people using the product and tested to monitor lead levels.
According to the FDA’s review of these findings, “no significant increase in blood levels of lead was seen in the trial subjects and the lead was not shown to be absorbed into the body through such use.”
However, in Canada and the European Union, the additive has been prohibited for almost a decade.
In its decision to ban lead acetate, Health Canada wrote, “The results showed that relatively small incremental exposures, such as those which would occur with regular use of hair dyes containing lead acetate, could result in the accumulation of potentially harmful body burdens of lead.”
For now, the compound remains legal in the United States, but hair products must print this warning to customers on the products’ boxes:
"Caution: Contains lead acetate. For external use only. Keep this product out of children's reach. Do not use on cut or abraded scalp. If skin irritation develops, discontinue use. Do not use to color mustaches, eyelashes, eyebrows, or hair on parts of the body other than the scalp. Do not get in eyes. Follow instructions carefully and wash hands thoroughly after use."
The problem with “proper use”
Progressive hair dyes need to be reapplied for proper maintenance of color.
That leads to continued exposure to the compound.
Plus, people don’t always follow the directions. Product packages advise people not to use these dye products on anything but their scalp, but not everyone heeds the warning.
A 2014 case study listed in the recent legal filing detailed the account of a man who had applied hair dye that contained lead acetate to his head and beard for seven months. He experienced tingling and numbness in his feet and hands, and his blood tests revealed the lead levels were 14 times higher than average blood lead levels.
His doctor recognized the neurotoxin in his hair dye and instructed him to stop using it. Once he ceased using the lead-containing product, levels of lead in his blood returned to normal within six months. His neurological symptoms were also gone within a year.
It’s not just the men coloring their hair who are at risk of lead exposure.
In 1997, researchers from Xavier University of Louisiana concluded that lead contamination extends to common surfaces. Men can transfer lead to faucets, handles, bottles, hair dryers, and more. Family members can easily pick up the traces of lead throughout the home.
For example, the study states that the progressive hair dye products coat hands with 150 to 700 micrograms of lead per hand. And there were up to 100 micrograms of lead on the surfaces men touched.
Washing hands with soap and water does not completely remove the lead.
In addition, running hands through the hair can also spread lead to the hands. Hand-to-mouth or hand-to-surface contamination is possible and likely quite common.
Regulators taking another look
To put those numbers into context, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that 40 micrograms of lead per square foot on the floor is considered hazardous to children.
In countries where lead acetate is banned, brands like Grecian Formula and Youthair have created products that are lead-free. Some of those products are available in the United States, but the lead-containing products remain.
In December, the FDA proposed limiting the amount of lead in certain cosmetic products, including lipstick, eye shadow, lotions, and more. Hair dyes, however, were not part of that list.
The FDA is now seeking comment from the public on the petition to ban lead acetate or allow it to remain an approved additive.
If the FDA were to ban the use of lead acetate in hair dyes and companies had lead-free alternatives available, the shift likely wouldn’t be a big market disruption. Still, manufacturers believe the ban would be an unnecessary restriction.
Combe, the company that manufactures Grecian Formula, told CBS in a statement that research on hand-to-mouth transmission of lead is “insufficient” and “lead acetate has been used safely as a color additive in ‘progressive’ hair dye products for decades based on extensive scientific studies.”