A small selection of Halloween face paint available at a Berkeley drugstore

By Belinda Lyons-Newman

With Halloween approaching, I set out last week to find make-up to decorate my three-year old daughter Ella’s face to go with her ladybug Halloween costume. I saw a variety of brands of face paints at the drug stores and toy stores near my north Berkeley home. Before choosing one to buy, like many Berkeley moms wanting to find the most natural products for their kids, I decided to first research online for the most natural brands available. I was amazed at what I found.

Two minutes into my online research, I pulled up a report published in 2009 by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC), a national coalition of non-profit groups working to eliminate harmful chemicals from personal care products. After testing ten major kids face paints sold in the US, the study found that all ten of the face paints tested contained lead. Six out of the ten face paints tested contained the known skin allergens, nickel, cobalt and/or chromium, at levels far exceeding the recommendations of industry studies.

“Lead is one of the most studied metals in terms of its health effects,” states the CSC report. “The evidence of its potential to cause harm, especially to children, is indisputable.” The Center for Disease Control and Prevention confirms that there is no known safe level of lead in the body.

I had begun my research to find the most natural and pure face paint to buy for my daughter, but I never expected to find that most brands on the market and in local stores in Berkeley contain metals known to harm kids. I was shocked and concerned by these findings and to learn that make-up is not regulated. Why, I wondered, are these harmful products permitted in face paint, even though lead has been banned in regulated products like house paint for decades?

The consequences of lead exposure are serious. The California Department of Public Health Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch website states that lead poisoning can harm a child’s nervous system and brain when they are still forming.

  • Lead can lead to a low blood count (anemia).
  • Small amounts of lead in the body can make it hard for children to learn, pay attention, and succeed in school.
  • Higher amounts of lead exposure can damage the nervous system, kidneys, and other major organs. Very high exposure can lead to seizures or death.

The other thing that surprised me is how few Berkeleyans seem to know about this. Even our small Berkeley independent kids’ stores are selling these toxic brands, which include Alex Face Paint, which had the highest lead quantity of the ten face paints in the study. Just this weekend my daughter was painted by “Snazaroo” face paint at a family fair down the street from our home. I assumed that the face paint used would be a safe brand given that it was a local Berkeley event, but when I got home I looked up Snazaroo. The CSC report said it  contained lead, nickel and cobalt.

A recent study found that ten face paint brands contained lead. Photo: Creative Common

I checked to see if there had been any update on this state of affairs since the 2009 report. Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry said “We have not retested Halloween paints. However, our allies at Environmental Defense Canada tested regular face make-up in the spring, and found heavy metals. So all indications are that the problem remains. Also, the legal loopholes are still the same — companies are allowed to put nearly any ingredient into personal care products sold in the US with no required safety testing, and without listing everything on the label because of the loopholes that allow them to hide fragrance ingredients and contaminants like heavy metals are typically contaminants.”

Malkan said CSC is trying to fix that by advocating for the passage of the Safe Cosmetics Act, which would require safety testing and full disclosure.

Deborah Moore, a Berkeley mom and founder of the Green Schools Initiative, told me that lead in Halloween face paints is just the tip of the iceberg. She explained that this is part of a much bigger problem of cosmetics overall. There are toxic chemicals in many of our products including soaps, cleaning products, air fresheners, paints, and personal care products. Another Berkeley local, Annie Leonard, produced a popular 7-minute documentary, The Story of Cosmetics, that exposes the pervasive use of toxic chemicals in our everyday personal care products, from lipstick to baby shampoo.

Moore says that even in Berkeley, people are fairly unaware of what’s in the products they buy. It is very confusing for the consumer since companies are not required to disclose ingredients and even when they do, it is not easy to understand. “You need a Ph.D. to go to the grocery store,” she said.

Since all of the face paints CSC tested contained lead, and none of the metals they found were listed on the ingredient labels, the CSC actually recommends avoiding Halloween face paint altogether until safety standards are put in place. CSC urges parents that, if they do choose to use face paint, they keep it away from kids’ mouths and hands so they don’t ingest it. They also provide some DIY recipes using food or natural food coloring.

Moore says that as a Berkeley mom “I am happy that my daughter has the privilege of growing up in Berkeley with a strong awareness of these environmental issues. At the same time I feel angry that she needs to worry that things she eats or products she comes into contact with may not be safe. It seems to take away some of the innocence of childhood.” She explains that she sees it as a balance. “I don’t want to teach her to be fearful. I teach her that she should enjoy all the things life has to offer, but to take precautions.”

Knowing that Whole Foods specializes in natural products, I gave the Telegraph and Ashby store a call to see what Halloween make-up they might have. I learned that they are selling face-painting pencils by a brand called Lyra from Germany which is advertised online as manufactured according to “Good Manufacturing Practice,” which governs the production of cosmetic products. Anthony Leomiti, associate store team leader at the Berkeley Whole Foods store, did not know specifically about the face paints, but he told me that all products at Whole Foods Market are free of harmful products and artificial ingredients in line with Whole Foods values, and in this case its quality standards for body care. If Whole Foods does the due diligence they claim they do, then it appears that the Lyra face painting pencils might be a good alternative.

Clearly there is much we do not know about the ingredients in the cosmetics we use, including kids’ face paint. More regulation would be helpful for parents. In the meantime, we can do our part to educate fellow parents and local stores and child-care providers about the toxic metals in face paint and stick with alternatives to the major brands. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep, the world’s largest database of chemicals in cosmetics is a resource for checking the safety of products you use.

Belinda Lyons-Newman lives in Berkeley with her husband Dan and three-year-old daughter, Ella. She is a nonprofit consultant and student in the part-time Berkeley MBA program at the Haas School of Business.

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