Face paints: how safe?

Photo courtesy of Joan Langdon.

By Vicki Louk Balint

The art of embellishing the skin with color and shading dates back to Cleopatra and her kohl stick…and beyond. Applying color and glitter to the face to disguise and decorate continues centuries later among adults and children—for pretend play, theater performances and especially Halloween costumes.

We’ve come a long way since the ancients crushed up coal mined from a strain of carbon in a mountainside, not knowing it could be filled with poisons like arsenic or lead. But how safe are face and body paints today?

The substances that give a product color, or color additives, must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in cosmetics, which includes face paints and theatrical makeup. The FDA also decides the proper use of color additives—some reds, for example, should not be used around the eyes. Additives that are approved for cosmetic use can be found on the FDA website.

Recently, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics released a report indicating that traces of lead had been found in some face paints sold for use by kids. According to the FDA, lead is an unintended contaminant or impurity that can be present at very low levels in some color additives. But it can also be present in other common ingredients, such as water, that are used to produce cosmetics.

The word “lead” in the same sentence as “children” can cause alarm, of course. But cosmetic chemist John Reinhardt, of Reinhardt Consultants, Inc., based in Riverside, Calif., has spent a career formulating products for major brands in the United States and he says the amounts are scant, when they are present at all.

“You’re probably more at risk drinking tap water,” he says.

Most lead compounds are not readily absorbed through the skin (except for tetraethyl lead, which used to be in leaded gasoline). Children are most at risk through breathing or ingesting lead compounds, so if you are concerned about exposure, keep products away from a child who might put them in his or her mouth.

More safety tips on face paint and other seasonal decorative products:

• Use only face paints that are intended for cosmetic use, says local professional artist and esthetician Joan Langdon of Party Art by Joan. “Craft paints like acrylics, tempera paints and watercolors—all of which may say non-toxic—are not meant to wear on your skin.” The name “face paint” itself is a misnomer, says Mardi Gras Costume Shop manager Paul Snatic. “It gives people the wrong idea.”

• Watch out for look-alike packaging. On a recent trip I made to a large, nationally known craft store, pots of face paints were packaged right alongside the tempera paint, making it tough to distinguish which was which at first glance. Choose carefully.

• Proper labeling should appear on the packaging, says Reinhardt. Look for ingredients listed in descending order, per FDA regulations. “Warning statements are a good thing—they can indicate that the manufacturer is interested in meeting requirements,” he says.

• Don’t buy cosmetic products at swap meets or a temporary seasonal venue. Maintaining a good reputation is far more important to big-name stores than the risk of selling of products with chemicals that are bad for you, says Reinhardt.

• Use glitter intended for cosmetic use only. “People may think glitter is glitter, but it’s not,” says Langdon, who says cosmetic glitter is made of polyester cut into tiny pieces. Crafting glitter has sharp edges and can actually damage the cornea if it gets into the eyes.

• Products other than face paints can cause reactions. “Latex (used for masks) has ammonia in it,” says Snatic. “Spirit gum (used for sticking on ears, noses, mustaches) has ether in it.” Skin test products in a small area behind the ear or inside the arm to check for an allergic reaction.

• Throw away any face paint or cosmetics that emit a foul odor when opened—they could be contaminated.

• Wash painted areas with soap and water at the end of the day, recommends Langdon. Don’t use baby wipes, which are not intended for the face.

Vicki Louk Balint is a staff writer and multimedia journalism for RAISING ARIZONA KIDS magazine. Read her “Health Matters” blog each Monday.


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