The really good–and surprising–news about lipstick is that there is a lot of Good Stuff and Okay Stuff out there. Many brands have created beautiful, effective, non-toxic lipsticks using safe ingredients.
In fact, we found so many brands that met our strict non-toxic lipstick standards that we had to force ourselves to stop vetting products in order to finally get this guide published!
Also in the interest of time, we mostly limited our research to products that are lipsticks, lip crayons, or pigmented lip glosses– not color-less lip balms or other lip treatment products.
And, as you probably guessed, there is a lot of of Bad Stuff and Sneaky Stuff in the world of lipstick. Because you wear lipstick on your lips, where it can be absorbed and ingested, I encourage you to choose Good Stuff and Okay Stuff. This is especially true for all you lipstick addicts out there!
Read on to learn more about what’s in lipstick (including my take on tricky stuff like colorants and lead), why safe lipstick matters, and our brand-by- brand guide to Good Stuff, Okay Stuff, Sneaky Stuff and Bad Stuff.
Note: Products like lipstick are constantly being re-formulated. The information in this post is based on the most current ingredient lists we could find as of early 2017.
My Top Pick For Non-Toxic Lipstick
What is Lipstick Made of?
Cosmetic labels often make my eyes cross—they tend to be long and involve a lot of complicated and problematic ingredients. In the case of lipstick, here are the types of ingredients you’ll generally find:
- Oils, plant butters, and other emollients are the primary ingredients in lipstick. Some are natural, and some are synthetic; most lipstick brands use a combination of both. Emollients moisturize and give lipstick “glide” and shine. As a bonus, some natural oils and butters have anti-microbial properties.
- Texturizers—typically really finely ground starches or powders from minerals or crystals—are found in most cosmetic products. In lipsticks, they help thicken and stabilize the formula. Some also have a pearlescent effect. Common texturizers include talc, kaolin, plant starches, mica and silica. Matte lipsticks have more of these ingredients to achieve that less shiny and more opaque look.
- Thickeners like waxes and polymers also provide shape and stability to lipstick formulas. Waxes preserve moisture, give some shine, give thickness and shape to the product, unify the ingredients, and raise the melting point, so your lipstick is less likely to melt
in your purse on a hot day.
- Colorants give lipsticks get their color. Also called dyes, pigments, or color additives, colorants can come from a variety of sources—earth, animal, plant, and chemical.
- Flavor and fragrance/aroma/parfum ingredients mask the unsavory smell and taste that many lipstick formulas would otherwise have (who knew?), and in some cases, give lipstick a signature scent.
- Preservatives and antioxidants prevent (or limit) the growth of microbes and keep oil ingredients from going rancid. Because lipstick formulas have little or no water ingredients and often contain oils and waxes with natural antimicrobial properties (like castor oil, coconut oil, and beeswax), lipstick formulas need little or no added preservatives—hooray! That said, you should pay attention to the expiration labels on your lip products.
Runner Up: Best Non-Toxic Lipstick
Although it’s only Okay Stuff, my second favorite non-toxic lipstick brand to use myself (behind Beautycounter) is Dr. Hauschka. I love how deliberate Hauschka is about how they source ingredients, and that they conduct purity testing for their lip product ingredients.
Why Safe Lipstick Matters
Lips are known to be sensitive and absorptive. They are covered by a layer of skin that’s much thinner than the skin that covers the rest of the face. Underneath is a sensitive mucous membrane. Lip skin also lacks hair and sweat glands, which means that our lips don’t have the same natural defenses provided by other types of skin.
Lips also deserve special consideration because they’re close to the mouth. You may have heard some “facts” about how many pounds of lipstick a woman supposedly ingests in her lifetime. These claims are usually exaggerated and poorly founded. However, it’s true that the majority of what you smear on your lips ends up being ingested. I don’t use lipstick that contains any ingredients that I wouldn’t want to eat (in small quantities, at least).
Lipstick Ingredients to Avoid
There are countless worrisome ingredients in many lipstick products (see Sneaky Stuff and Bad Stuff tabs, below). Here are the most common and concerning types of ingredients to look out for:
- Conventional (non-organic) castor seed oil and its derivatives are used widely in lip products. Non-organic castor seed oil is potentially tainted with agricultural residues, as well as residues from extraction and other processes used to produce the oil. Castor seed oil is also a penetration enhancer, making the other lipstick ingredients matter more. Not all castor seed oil is bad—in fact, castor seed oil can have some very beneficial properties (see “Lipstick Ingredients That Are Safe” for more on good castor seed oil.)
- Preservatives and antioxidant ingredients are tricky—we need them to keep products fresh and limit the growth of microbes, but they tend to be problematic. Concerns range from irritation and allergenic effects to hormone distruption and cancer. Fortunately, most lipstick formulas have minimal water content and need little or no added preservatives; also, some lipstick ingredients, like natural oils and waxes, have natural anti-microbial and anti-oxidant properties. You’ll still find preservative and antioxidant ingredients in a lot of lipsticks, including some of the Good Stuff and Okay Stuff (where applicable, I noted this for people who are particularly sensitive or concerned). In lipsticks, I look out for ingredients like parabens, terpenes (like synthetic limonene, geraniol, linalool, farnesol, and citronellol), phenoxyethanol, benzyl benzoate, and BHT.
- Flavor and fragrance/aroma/parfum ingredients can contain many unlisted components, including phthalates, which are hormone disrupters and possible carcinogens.
Are Lipstick Colorants Safe?
When I began researching lipstick ingredients, I was most concerned about colorants, thanks to controversy over “natural” versus “synthetic” colors as well as concerns about lead contamination from mineral-derived pigments. Also, colorants are very confusing. There are many different kinds, as well as different systems for identifying them in the United States, Europe, and Japan. So I was pleasantly surprised when my research led me to be less concerned about most colorants in lipstick—and to conclude that, at least when it comes to colorants in cosmetics, the FDA’s regulations favor consumer safety.
Cosmetics are loosely regulated in general, but one area in which the FDA exercises a lot of scrutiny is colorants. All colorants (called “color additives” by the FDA) used in cosmetics must be approved for use in cosmetics (there are separate lists for food, drugs, or medical devices). The FDA is also specific about which colorants can be used in lip and eye makeup. So the FDA regulates which colorants can be used, for what purposes, and provides guidance on safe amounts. They also specify, colorant-by-colorant, the maximum allowed levels of potential contaminants, such as heavy metals.
There is even a category of colorants– FDA certified– that must be tested batch-by-batch before they can be used. This includes the FD&C or D&C colors, often identified by number (like “Red 6”). For all other colorants—most earth-derived ones, as well as plant-derived pigments—it’s up to the manufacturer to ensure purity and safety. I’m a fan of Beautycounter, because they have an extra level of scrutiny to ensure the purity of their products. Other companies, like Honeybee Gardens and Dr. Hauschka, also conduct some additional testing.
So—are cosmetic colorants used in lipsticks safe? My current conclusion is that most of them are. Here’s some detail:
- Because of the FDA safeguards, I’m most confident about the safety of colorants that are FDA approved for use in cosmetics (and, specifically, lip products). Of these, synthetic dyes and lakes that are subject to FDA certification (identified by their FD&C or D&C numbers) are the most highly scrutinized for safety.
- Earth-derived pigments from mineral and crystal sources (like iron oxides, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, and mica) that are FDA approved for cosmetic use are in the middle—they’re safest when used by companies who are diligent about ingredient purity (especially heavy metals, which are present in many of the raw materials). Companies have to trust their sources and, ideally, conduct additional testing to ensure safety.
- Plant-derived colorants, a.k.a. phyto-pigments, are in a grey zone. They aren’t FDA approved for use in cosmetics (not necessarily because they are unsafe, but because no one has submitted petitions to have them reviewed for safety as cosmetic coloring ingredients). Their origins—fruits, vegetables, and flowers—sound nice, but plant-derived ingredients can be tainted with agricultural residues as well as residues from whatever processes are used to extract the pigments from the plant source. Natural ingredients can also be irritating or cause allergic reactions in some people. As with earth-derived colorants, I’m most confident about plant-derived colorants if they’re used by companies that are diligent about ingredient purity.
The line between “natural” and “synthetic” is blurry when it comes to colorants. Many companies claim that mineral-derived pigments are natural, but most iron oxides used in cosmetics are actually synthetically derived from the natural source material. (And that’s a good thing, because using raw iron oxides would expose us to higher levels of naturally occurring heavy metals, such as lead.) Most plant-derived colorants are also highly processed in order create pigments that are concentrated enough for use in cosmetics. When it comes to safety, neither natural nor synthetic wins—the safest colorants are those that are clearly identified and tested for potential contaminants.
(Note: We found that the EWG/Skin Deep entries for many colorants were inconsistent and inaccurate, so we did not rely on them for determining safety.)
Lead and Other Heavy Metals in Lipstick
In 2007, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics set off a media storm when they reported that they detected lead in about two thirds of the 66 lipstick products they tested. Eventually the FDA followed up with its own studies. The FDA found lead in more lipstick and other cosmetic products, often at levels higher than those originally discovered.
What is lead doing in lipstick? Lead and other “heavy metals” (such as chromium, cadmium, aluminum, and arsenic) are naturally occurring in the environment, including in the materials used to derive earth-based cosmetic pigments. Also the human use of metals has caused higher levels of contamination in the environment, including sources for cosmetic ingredients. This is why we have heavy metal pollution in our air, water and food supply.
Although it’s widely recognized that there is no such thing as a “safe” level of lead in the body, the FDA’s position is that cosmetic manufacturers can limit the levels of lead in their products so that they don’t pose a health threat. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and others argue that lead exposure is problematic at all levels because lead accumulates in the body over time, and the effects can be very serious for adults and children alike.
My take: I am concerned about heavy metal pollution in general. We use water filters and air filters in our home and limit our intake of foods like brown rice and brown rice syrup, which tend to have higher levels of arsenic. When it comes to lipstick, I prefer brands like Beautycounter and Dr. Hauschka because they source their ingredients carefully and conduct additional purity testing with conservative standards.
I balance my concerns by keeping in mind that the lead and other concerning metals in lip products don’t necessarily add to my toxic load—just because it’s ingested doesn’t mean it’s assimilated into the body. Also, Randy Schueller at The Beauty Brains blog suggests that even a heavy lipstick user would excrete more lead than she ingests.
Among the Good Stuff and Okay Stuff, you’ll see non-toxic lipstick ingredients such as:
- Organic waxes, oils and plant butters, such as beeswax, candelilla wax (a vegan alternative to beeswax), carnauba wax, cocoa butter, mango seed butter, shea butter, avocado butter, avocado oil, and coconut oil, to name a few.
- Organic castor seed oil, if it’s hexane-free and cold pressed, has many benefits—it’s moisturizing and has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral properties—without the drawbacks of conventional castor seed oil (though people with castor allergies probably need to avoid even the organic forms).
- Safer antioxidants and preservatives, such as rosemary extract, elderberry extract, neem oil, pure tocopherols (vitamin E), and jojoba esters.
- Straightforward flavoring and aroma ingredients, like vanilla planifolia fruit extract–aside from smelling great, it also has antioxidant and preservative properties.
The Good Stuff
Axiology Non-Toxic Lipstick is made primarly from organic oils, waxes, and butters, including organic castor seed oil. I like the simplicity of their formula (which is vegan, BTW)—it’s short and involves non-problematic, natural ingredients. Due to customer concerns, Axiology recently stopped using phenoxyethanol as a preservative and instead rely on elderberry extract and neem seed oil. They use earth-derived pigments (non-nano) and manganese violet for colorants. I wish they did some purity testing, but they say that they get their colorants from a trusted source.
This EWG-Verified lip gloss is enriched with natural coconut oil and cocoa butter and free of dyes, fragrances, talc, mineral oil, and more Bad Stuff.
Babo Botanicals Lip Tint Conditioner SPF 15 is a nice daytime option, with just a hint of natural color.
Beautycounter’s Lip Sheer and Lip Gloss products are made with many synthetic ingredients and have few organic ingredients. I call them Good Stuff because their ingredients are safe–Beautycounter is very deliberate about every ingredient they use, and they provided us with detailed information on each of the ingredients we wanted to know more about. Most importantly, they conduct purity testing on every batch of color cosmetics, including screening for 12 metals. I also like that they skip concerning preservatives and use vanilla planifolia fruit extract in place of sketchy fragrances. For colorants, they use a combination of earth-derived pigments and FD&C colors. As I mentioned above, Beautycounter is my top pick for lipstick–and what I use myself.
Kjaer Weis uses organic castor seed oil in their Lipstick and Lip Tint formulas, both of which are relatively simple and straightforward. Many of their other waxes, oils and butters are also organic. For colorants, they use a combination of earth-derived pigments, carmine, and FD&C colors. Note: Both of these lip products also contain some citral and limonene from the essential oils.
Honeybee Gardens has recently transitioned to using more organic ingredients (including organic castor seed oil) in their Truly Natural Lipstick and Luscious Lip Gloss formulas. I also like that they are in the habit of having their products tested by a third party for potential contaminants such as lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium. In the Lucious Lip Gloss, they use vanilla planifolia fruit oil rather than a more vague aroma or flavor ingredient. (Bonus: this oil also has antioxidant/preservative properties.) For colorants, they use a combination of earth-derived colorants and one of the D&C red dyes (which substitutes for carmine, making their formulas vegan). Note: When I last checked, the EWG/Skin Deep entries for these lip products were based on old formulas (from 2012).
Ilia makes its Lipstick, Lip Crayon, and Lip Gloss products from primarily organic ingredients (including organic castor seed oil) and safe colorants (earth-derived pigments and FD&C dyes). Their formulas are relatively simple and contain familiar ingredients. The ingredients they use for extra antioxidant, preservative, and aroma quality are of little or no concern (for instance, vitamin E and vanilla planifolia fruit oil). Note: Ilia lip products are absent on EWG/Skin Deep except for an inaccurate listing for one of their Lipstick shades.
Olio e Osso Lip & Cheek Balm are an essential, versatile product that is nourishing on lips and cheeks, soothing on the skin and hair, and adored by all who discover them. The colors we carry contain no ingredients rated risky by the EWG, and the base ingredients for each balm is shea butter, olive oil, and beeswax. Just simply swipe the Olio e Osso balm across lips or slide over cheekbones for a subtle glow.
Available in various colors
Poofy Organics uses mostly organic ingredients (including organic castor seed oil) in their Lipstick and Lip Gloss. Their ingredients are also easy to recognize and primarily natural. I also like that Poofy skips sketchy preservatives and fragrance/flavor ingredients. For colorants, they use earth-derived pigments and some plant powders (including annatto seed– you’ll want to skip the lipstick if you’re one of the few people who are sensitive to it).
RMS Beauty makes their lip2cheek and lipshine products with mostly organic oils (including organic castor seed oil), waxes and butters. For antioxidant and preservative benefits, they use organic rosemary extract and non-GMO
vitamin E. Colorants include earth-derived pigments and some FD&C reds. EWG/Skin Deep gives these products a score of 1-2, depending on the shade.
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