THEGREENGROK    The Chemical Marketplace

One Way to Get the Gray out Is to Get the Lead in

by Bill Chameides | July 29th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 2 comments


More than 80,000 chemicals are produced, used, and present in the United States. This is one of their stories.

When it comes to personal care products, does Mom know best?

News flash: The first flush of youth is behind me. And even though a manly man like me is not supposed to care about such things, the morning mirror experience can be a bit of a shock. But what really shook me up recently was during a visit with my 90-year-old mom when she took my hand and said gently: “You don’t need that gray hair. Your dad used Grecian Formula. You should too.”

A double whammy: hitting me at my weak spot, my vanity, and invoking my dear, departed father who always told me to “listen to your mom.” What could I do? I decided to check the stuff out. What I found was kind of alarming. To listen to my mom on the Grecian Formula front would mean routinely putting lead on my head — that’s right, the chemical element whose name is often followed by the word “poisoning.”

What’s the Formula for Grecian Formula?

Hair dyes come in three basic categories: permanent, semi-permanent, and temporary. Permanent dyes consist of both oxidative dyes and progressive dyes. Progressive dyes (like Grecian Formula) use lead acetate to essentially tint the hair “by reacting with the sulfur of hair keratin as well as oxidizing on the hair surface.” This reaction creates a leaded black pigment that coats your hair. The more you use a progressive dye, the more pigment your hair has and the darker it appears.

The Beauty and the Question Mark

The beauty, if you will, of products like Grecian Formula is that they change hair color gradually, so most people never notice the youthful transformation. I sure like that part.

The part that’s not so great is that this fountain of youth comes by way of working lead acetate into your hair, multiple times per week. The amount of lead in the formula is reported to be 10 times more than what’s allowed in household paint. How can that be safe?

The Chemical Marketplace
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The Grecian Formula folks say it is. Its website [pdf], in response to the question of whether Grecian Formula can damage hair, says: “No. It contains no harsh chemicals which could cause dryness or damage.” What’s more, lead acetate is not soluble in water, so as long as you don’t have a cut or wound, its parent company Combe, Inc. says, the lead should not be absorbed into your skin. No need to even wear plastic gloves, its site [pdf] also says — it “does not stain the skin.” And as long as you wash your hands thoroughly it should not get into your mouth, etc. Despite all this safety, a message at the end of these instruction reads: “Before application, see caution statement on product or box for proper use.”

The Food and Drug Administration agrees, stating:

“In the trials [conducted by industry], people using the product under controlled conditions … were monitored for the amount of lead in their bloodstream. 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.”

There is an FDA caveat and it comes in the following cautionary statement required on all product labels:

Caution: Contai
ns 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.”

FDA also notes that “to ensure safe use of these products, it is important that consumers follow these directions carefully.”

Use as Directed?

I wonder how many people who buy off-the-shelf products like this assume they must be safe by the very fact that they’re available? How many bother to read the directions? Even following directions might lead to issues. In 1997, a study by Howard Mielke of Xavier University and colleagues published in the Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association found that even when used as directed, lead from the product ended up on users’ hands from which it could be transferred to children, pets, food, etc.

So why is there a product on the market that lets folks, most likely unawares, coat their hair with lead — a compound widely known to be hazardous to health? Well, such products are not available everywhere. Lead acetate is banned in Canada, due to concerns about toxic effects from skin absorption, and in the European Union because manufacturers couldn’t prove it was safe. (In both places reformulated Grecian Formula products, with bismuth citrate substituted for lead acetate, are available.)

Why is it that both Canada and the EU have banned lead acetate in cosmetics, but the United States has not? Simple. We do things differently.

Personal Care Product ‘Regulation’

Most personal care products like hair dye (also deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste, lipstick, etc.) are covered by the cosmetics section of the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. But while this law sets rigorous standards for food and drug safety, it does not do the same for cosmetics. In fact, some have characterized the cosmetics market as being “essentially unregulated.” Other critics argue that the law is so lax that hazardous chemicals, whether they be endocrine disruptors or carcinogens, can make their way into children’s shampoo, shaving creams, or lipstick, to name just a few.

Here are a few of the relevant details about how this can be:

  1. There is no premarket approval process for personal care products except for color additives, but even this has an exemption for coal tar hair dyes. (Note: Lead acetate as a color additive was subject to premarket approval.)
  2. Manufacturers are responsible for ensuring the safety of products, much of this done by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) panel, an industry-funded expert panel. In the 35 years since it was created, it has evaluated less than 20 percent [pdf] of the roughly 12,500 ingredients used in cosmetics. The CIR currently lists nine ingredients as unsafe [pdf]. For its part, the FDA, has either banned or restricted fewer than 15 ingredients. (See also CIR’s banned and restricted list.)
  3. Not all ingredients in cosmetics are fully disclosed, and those that are are sometimes lumped into nondescript categories such as “fragrance” or “and other ingredients.” (For more, see the FDA’s Cosmetic Labeling Guide.)
  4. Product recalls are voluntary. If a product is found to violate federal law, FDA can request a recall and “may pursue enforcement action,” but it is not mandated to do so. (More specifics here.)

New Legislation to the Rescue?

Much like the already proposed legislation floating around Congress that would strengthen the Toxic Substances Control Act, a revised version of the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010 was reintroduced last month by Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). This legislation is designed, its advocates say, to give FDA the authority it needs to ensure that personal care products are free of harmful ingredients and that ingredients are fully disclosed.

A New Me?

So am I taking the leaden plunge with the Grecian Formula? Or have I switched to a “greener” alternative to battle the gray? Or have I decided to break my poor mom’s 90-year-old heart and allow nature to take its graying course? That’s between me and my mirror.

Whatever I do, I’ve now resolved that when it comes to personal care products: Read the label, pay attention to the directions, think twice. Repeat.

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  1. Chris Winter
    Aug 9, 2011

    The manufacturer’s claim that lead acetate is not soluble in water caught my eye. When I was a kid I dabbled in chemistry, and one of the things I did was to make pyrophoric lead, where the metal particles are so finely divided that they ignite on contact with air. The recipe starts with lead acetate. You dissolve it in water… Wikipedia lists two forms of lead acetate. One is designated lead(IV) acetate or lead tetraacetate. It’s used as a reagent in organic chemistry. The other is lead(II) acetate, the one used in Grecian Formula. Wikipedia notes that both forms are poisonous. About the (II) form, it says “Lead(II) acetate (Pb(CH3COO)2), also known as lead acetate, lead diacetate, plumbous acetate, sugar of lead, lead sugar, salt of Saturn, and Goulard’s powder, is a white crystalline chemical compound with a sweetish taste. It is made by treating lead(II) oxide with acetic acid. Like other lead compounds, it is toxic. Lead acetate is soluble in water and glycerin. With water it forms the trihydrate, Pb(CH3COO)2·3H2O, a colorless or white efflorescent monoclinic crystalline substance. “The substance is used as a reagent to make other lead compounds and as a fixative for some dyes. In low concentrations, it is the principal active ingredient in progressive types of hair coloring dyes. Lead(II) acetate is also used as a mordant in textile printing and dyeing, as a drier in paints and varnishes, and in preparing other lead compounds.”

    • Bill Chameides
      Aug 19, 2011

      Chris: Thanks for info.

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