Many of the makeup products that Canadian women apply every day contain a number of toxic heavy metals – and some contain arsenic and lead levels that exceed Health Canada recommended limits.

That's what the Canadian environmental advocacy group Environmental Defence found when it submitted 49 makeup products to lab testing. The tests revealed heavy metals in all the products -- none of which were listed on the labels.

Almost all the heavy metals found were within limits set out in Health Canada's "Draft Guidance on Heavy Metal Impurities in Cosmetics." But Rick Smith, Environmental Defence's executive director, notes that those guidelines aren't even yet law; instead, they've been "sitting on a shelf" for more than two years.

Smith is now calling on Health Canada to tighten up those regulations and make cosmetic companies list all metals on their product labels because "Canadians deserve to know what is in their cosmetics."

"People shouldn't have to be chemical engineers when they shop for their cosmetics. We need better labelling with these kinds of toxic chemicals," he told CTV's Canada AM Monday morning.

Environmental Defence asked six random women to choose five makeup products they regularly used. The group then added another five of their own to test. (Some of the items, such as eyeshadows, contained more than one shade, so each item was tested separately). They included:

  • 14 eye shadows
  • 8 lipsticks or lip glosses
  • 7 mascaras
  • 5 foundations
  • 5 blushes or bronzers
  • 4 concealers
  • 4 powders
  • 2 eyeliners

The items ranged from inexpensive brands available in drug stores to more expensive brands from makeup counters. No one brand stood out as worse than another. In fact, some brands contained shades with some of the highest levels of the metals as well as shades with low metal levels.

All 49 items tested contained nickel, 96 per cent contained lead, and 90 per cent contained beryllium.

The four metals of most concern for this testing were arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury. Only one product, Annabelle Mineral Pigment Dust (Solar), was found to not contain a single metal of most concern.

On average, the products contained four of the eight metals of concern, though one product contained seven of the eight metals of concern (arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, beryllium, nickel, selenium, and thallium).

"These heavy metals have been very strongly linked by doctors to serious human disease – things like heart problems, nerve damage. And these heavy metals actually accumulate in our bodies over our lifetime. So it's very important to try to limit our exposure," Smith said.

The highest levels of arsenic (70 parts per million), cadmium (3 ppm), and lead (110 ppm) were found in lip glosses. Lip products are of particular concern, Smith says, because they're applied close to the mouth and are regularly ingested.

"There's been some studies and believe it or not, the average woman eats an average of 4 lbs (1.8 kg) of lipstick during her lifetime," Smith said.

Benefit Benetint lip gloss Red Tint contained the highest level of lead, at 110 ppm, which is over 10 times higher than the limit set out in the Health Canada Draft Guidance on Heavy Metal Impurities in Cosmetics. The lip gloss also contained 70 ppm of arsenic, which is over 20 times higher than Health Canada's recommended limit of 3ppm.

Environmental Defence is urging the government to revise its draft guidelines to reflect its contention that lower levels of certain metals are "technically avoidable" in the manufacturing process.

The Canadian Cosmetics, Toiletries and Fragrances Association disputes the report. It says the metals are found in such minimal amounts in cosmetic products that they pose no significant risk.

Darren Praznik, the president and CEO of the CCTFA, adds that many of the pigments used in cosmetics are naturally sourced.

"In the real world, these are natural contaminants that are occurring in nature. They are in soil, they are in minerals, they are in plants, etc. So anything that uses an ingredient from those natural sources faces the issue of whether or not they are in their products," he told CTV News.

He also notes that Environmental Defence's report doesn't include the full findings.

"They didn't include in their report… their specific data because that reinforces that products on the market are within the guidelines that have been established internationally in Europe. So the reality is the products on the market are safe."

Health Canada says it has seen the report but says heavy metal impurities in cosmetic products are unavoidable "due to the ubiquitous nature of these elements."

"We don't think that trace levels of metals in cosmetics are a human health concern," James Van Loon, Health Canada's director of Risk Management Bureau, Product Safety told CTV News.

"These are present in the environment. They are ubiquitous."

The agency says heavy metal concentrations in cosmetic products are seen to be "technically avoidable" when they exceed the following limits:

  • Lead: 10 ppm
  • Arsenic: 3 ppm
  • Cadmium: 3 ppm
  • Mercury: 3 ppm
  • Antimony: 5 ppm