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Hong Kong and Macau join forces in monitoring safety of lipsticks - CHOICE # 361 (November 11, 2006)

Don't lick your lips. Can you be sure if the lipstick you wear is free of any hazard both in ingredients and hygiene?

That's precisely what the Consumer Council has set out to investigate in a joint test with its counterpart in Macau.

Lipstick is so much an indispensable part of a woman's daily appearance that its safety is conveniently taken for granted.

The concern is lipsticks may contain high levels of toxic heavy metals, prohibited colour pigments and harmful bacteria.

To assess the safety of this product, the Consumer Council has put under test a total of 40 samples of this probably the most frequently applied and highly visible of all cosmetics.

The test marked the first project of its kind with the Macau Consumer Council in a joint effort to cover lipsticks available to consumers in both markets - 30 samples from Hong Kong and 10 from Macau within a price range of MOP 10 to HK$88.

So, hold you breath, ladies (and, to some extent, gentlemen), for the test outcome: the test did uncover heavy metals and bacteria in some lipsticks.

Present in some of the samples were 3 heavy metals, namely, lead, cadmium and antimony: 

  • 7 samples were found with lead ranging in concentration from 1.0 ppm to 7.8 ppm, which is within the limit stipulated in the Hygienic Standard for Cosmetics of the mainland.
  • 1 sample contained 1.2 ppm of cadmium, which is within the level stipulated in cosmetic regulations of Japan and Taiwan.
  • 3 samples were detected with antimony in concentration from 2.3 ppm to 7.8 ppm. The presence of traces of antimony is allowed under European Union Standard, provided that the heavy metal is technically unavoidable in good manufacturing process, and that the product concerned must not cause damage to health under normal use.

On a brighter note, all samples were free of the heavy metals, mercury and arsenic.

In addition, 26 models were found to contain the metal nickel in concentration from 1.1 ppm to 16 ppm. The reference limit for this metal in cosmetics, according to the German Health Authority, is 10 ppm. Contact with nickel can commonly cause allergy.

As regards the hygiene condition or microbial contents of lipsticks, the results were satisfactory - with no sample detected of fecal coliform, Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, mold and yeast.

The one exception was aerobic bacterial count - but all samples were found to be less than 500 CFU/g in compliance with the Hygienic Standard for Cosmetics of the mainland.

No prohibited colour additives (with reference to the EU Cosmetics Directive) were detected in any of the lipstick samples.

Overall, despite the presence of contaminants - their levels were generally within the limits set for safety - consumers can put their heart at ease. They can consult the test report in this November issue of CHOICE for reference and guidance.

So, how does one go about shopping for lipsticks? Informative labeling is obviously important to help consumers make an informed choice.

It was found that 7 of the lipstick samples were not labeled with any information in relation to: net weight, country of origin, composition, manufacturing and/or expiry dates.

The great majority of the samples provided only partial information in their labels: 29 samples had information of net weight, 13 of country of origin, 20 of composition, and 9 of manufacturing and/or expiry dates.

The labeling of cosmetics is not mandated (except bilingual safety warnings for their safe keeping, use, consumption or disposal when necessary) under the Consumer Goods Safety Ordinance.

Manufacturers or suppliers are urged to label their products informatively and consumers, on the other hand, will do well to find out more information, including safety warnings, about the products they are buying.

Last but not least, it makes good sense to wipe off the lipsticks as much as possible before drinking or eating.

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