By Erin Volheim
Our mouths are where we take in nourishment and express our minds. They are adorned by lips, which can in one blink make a statement about our health, social status, personal politic and gender identity. Ironically, the cosmetics we apply to achieve that impression has had ramifications on our personal health.
Through the ages, the impression of one’s lips has laid bare the greatest social consequence for women. Colorfully embellished lips have culturally distinguished women as rose-tinted virgins to crimson hussies. Suffragettes wore lipstick to proclaim their liberation and first wave feminists denounced its use in emancipation from the patriarchy. Even during the Roman Empire, the color of lip paint a man wore indicated his social standing.
Achieving the cultural expectations of health, status and beauty, has led us to repeatedly bite our lips, rub red ribbons across them, suck on lemons, kiss red crepe paper or burnish them with brandy. The origins of lip rouge go back to Sumerian Queen Schub-ad in 3,500 B.C., who made a lip colorant out of white lead and crushed semi-precious red rocks.
The list of ingredients that have been used since that time vary widely from the non-toxic to the poisonous. Sheep sweat, crocodile excrement, ox marrow, red wine, raisins, egg whites, red staining roots, fig milk and roses have all been utilized. Cleopatra had carmine beetles pulverized for red coloring, then mixed with ant’s eggs for the base of her signature lip paint. Ancient Egyptians also tattooed their lips with henna adding fish scales for a shimmer effect. Classical Greeks were naively fond of using vermilion from cinnabar, a mercury-containing powdered mineral.
Today the average lipstick-wearing woman consumes one to three tubes of lipstick per year, up to nine pounds of lipstick in her lifetime. From a health perspective, this makes it all the more important that what we put on our lips is as nourishing as the food we put through them.
When the cosmetic industry came out of the Great Depression in 1936, the U.S. Congress passed the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. This act specified that cosmetics could not contain “poisonous” or “deleterious” substances that might render them unsafe.
Despite this regulatory intent, modern culture has relied on petroleum in its lipsticks and lip balms, in the form of petrolatum which is now known to be “deleterious.” Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), are common contaminants in petrolatum, which is found in 15 percent of all lipstick and 40 percent of all baby lotions and oils. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) restricts petrolatum in food to no more than 10 parts per million, and requires petrolatum used in food packaging or drugs to meet purity standards. Yet the FDA allows any amount of petrolatum with no safety standard restrictions in personal care products. Manufacturers are free to use the same unregulated petrolatum in personal care products as can be used in shoe polish.
A Columbia University study found that PAHs can be linked to breast cancer. Researchers found that the breast tissue of women with breast cancer was three times more likely to contain elevated levels of PAHs bound to DNA (called DNA adducts) than the breast tissue of women without breast cancer. Petrolatum is also listed as a probable human carcinogen in the European Union’s Dangerous Substances Directive and its use in cosmetics was banned in 2004.
Presently, cosmetics manufacturers have moved from relying on one type of wax and oil, now they mix several ingredients for better quality and cost efficiency. The wax component, which gives most lipstick their shape, now generally consists of a carnauba wax and beeswax mixture, which are both available as certified organic. Carnauba wax offers an improvement over pure beeswax, as carnauba’s high melting point renders it more stable in hot weather.
Carnauba wax comes from the leaves of a palm tree known as the “Tree of Life,” Copernica cerifera. This slow-growing tree flourishes in the northeastern regions of Brazil, along river banks and connecting lowlands. The tree exudes a wax through the petioles of its fan-shaped leaves, preventing dehydration in the equatorial climate. The cutting of the leaves and sprouts takes place during the dry season, September through February. Workers can only harvest 20 leaves per year from a tree, which are then sun-dried and mechanically thrashed to remove the crude wax. The color and quality of the wax are governed by the age of the leaves, and care used in processing this hard and brittle wax.
Besides the well-known beeswax, jojoba oil is becoming more commonplace in organic lip balms and lipsticks. Jojoba oil is actually a liquid wax rendered from the seed of the jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis) plant, a shrub native to southern Arizona, southern California and northwestern Mexico. The oil makes up approximately 50 percent of the jojoba seed by weight.
Unlike common vegetable oils, jojoba oil is chemically very similar to human sebum, which makes it a healing moisturizer for your skin. Southwestern tribes have been utilizing the jojoba seed for cooking, hair care and medical treatments for centuries. Its industrial uses were not discovered by Europeans until the early 20th century.
Jojoba oil had industrial applications similar to sperm whale oil, whose imports were banned in the U.S. in 1971 with the whale’s protected status under the Endangered Species Act.
The other major ingredient of lipstick and lip balm is an emollient, a protective agent that both moisturizes and disperses pigment. Castor oil has been widely used for this purpose and can be sourced as certified organic. The castor plant has been known for its healing properties for centuries. Despite its medicinal value, the pinto bean-sized seed contains ricin, a toxic protein removed by cold pressing and filtering. Ricin is considered one of the leading natural poisons and its use is currently on a terrorism watch list, though bans of export from India have recently been lifted. Harvesting the castor beans is also not without risk. Allergenic compounds found on the plant surface can cause permanent nerve damage, making the harvest of castor beans a health risk. In India, Brazil and China where most castor oil is produced, farm workers suffer harmful side effects.
Health concerns about ricin from castor oil production have encouraged the quest for alternative sources for hydroxy fatty acids. Sucrose esters are a hydroxy fatty acid substitute that can be sourced organically through companies like Oregon Tilth certified Owen Botanical Organics. Alternatively, some researchers are trying to genetically modify the castor plant to prevent the synthesis of ricin itself.
Another emollient used is lanolin. Crude lanolin constitutes approximately 5-25 percent of the weight of freshly shorn wool. The wool is washed in hot water with a special wool scouring detergent to remove dirt, wool grease (crude lanolin), suint (sweat salts), and anything else stuck to the wool. The wool grease is continuously removed during this washing process by centrifugal separators, which concentrate the wool grease into a wax-like substance melting at around 100°F.
Although lanolin is from the sebaceous glands of sheep, it undergoes many processes to isolate and purify it. It can be considered a synthetic compound and thus not under the category of “organic,” by USDA’s standards. The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) defines a synthetic ingredient as a “substance that is formulated or manufactured by a chemical process or by a process that chemically changes a substance extracted from naturally occurring plant, animal, or mineral sources, except that such term shall not apply to substances created by naturally occurring biological processes.” Whereas they define a non-synthetic ingredient as “a substance that is derived from mineral, plant, or animal matter and does not undergo a synthetic process.”
The natural personal care market is the fastest growing segment in the cosmetics industry with over 10 percent annual growth. It has now evolved into the “cosmeceutical” industry. In the 1970s, the term cosmeceutical was coined by American dermatologist, Albert Kligman, but in practice it’s been around since the ancient Egyptians, who were the first to recognize the health-giving properties of cosmetics. Archaelogists have unearthed cosmetic jars with hieroglyphics that translate to “stops bleeding” or “good for sight.”
To many medieval Arab physicians and their European counterparts, there were no distinctions between cosmetics, fragrances and herbal medicines. The separation of the cosmetic and toiletries industry from medicine and pharmacy was a 19th century phenomenon, that occurred when the modern pharmaceutical industry was first developed, and the first government statutes regulating the sale of drugs were drafted.
So it comes as no surprise that in the era of cosmeceuticals, Horst Rechelbacher, who pioneered the natural personal care company Aveda (later sold to Estee Lauder,) would create a new company called Intelligent Nutrients. After years of research, they have found ways to make hair spray that won’t lead to cancer, feeds your scalp and you could drink, which Horst personally demonstrated. Their mission is to create organic food-based products that can be used both internally or externally. Their lip balm is called a Lip Delivery Nutrition system, which is composed of certified organic ingredients: beeswax, coconut oil, sunflower seed oil, castor seed oil, palm kernel seed oil. In addition, they add their antioxidant formula: black cumin, pumpkin, red grape, red raspberry and cranberry seed oil. With exception of the beeswax, their lip balm resembles a “smoothie” more than a lip balm.
Another visionary cosmetic company is OTCO certified Merry Hempsters who use as the base for all their lip and skin care products certified organic Canadian hemp seed oil. Hemp seed oil is pressed from the seed of the hemp plant (i.e., non-drug varieties of Cannabis sativa). This oil typically contains between 30-35 percent oil by weight, and is extremely high in essential fatty acids. Hemp seed oil is a highly nutritious food. When you consider that lip balm is involuntarily ingested, the fact that hemp seed oil is a complete protein and contains all twenty known amino acids has a nutritional advantage over most lip moisturizers.
One of the most valued properties of hemp seed oil is its percentage of essential fatty acids (EFA), which is higher than any other plant in the world. EFA’s are responsible for the luster in our skin, hair and eyes. They also transfer oxygen to every cell in our body. In addition, they lubricate and clear the arteries and strengthen our immune system. EFA’s are not produced by the human body, rather we must be obtain them from food sources, or in this case our lip balm.
Merry Hempster’s Spearmint Lip Balm recipe is made up of organic hemp seed oil, organic beeswax, organic calendula extract infused in organic olive or sunflower seed oil, essential oil of organic spearmint, organic rosemary oil and non-GMO vitamin E. This list of ingredients meets NOP standards perfectly while giving the user soft, supple lips.
In contrast, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics discovered in October 2007 that many conventional comestic company lipstick recipes had not evolved much further than Sumerian Queen Schub-ad’s lead lipstick recipe. They selected 33 lipsticks for lead testing at an independent lab. Sixty-one percent of lipsticks contained some lead, with levels ranging up to 0.65 parts per million.
In this day and age, most folks know that lead is a neurotoxin that you definitely don’t want on your lips. The FDA does not have any limits on lead in lipstick and as of yet has not disproved these findings. In December 2007, they released a statement saying that they will look into it, but a year later they still have not publicly released any new information.
Fortunately, many cosmetic companies have evolved beyond the antiquated cosmetic guidelines of the FDA. Particularly those innovators working with natural ingredients who have demonstrated that they can expertly read the lips of the organic consumer by creating wholesome products that speak to our personal health.
Erin Volheim lives in the Little Applegate of Southern Oregon, and rarely adorns her lips.