Everyone knows that astronomy grew out of astrology. Both can trace their origins back to the same place, even though they don’t have much to do with one another nowadays. It is often thought, even by some chemists, that chemistry has a similar relationship with alchemy. It sounds plausible, but in fact modern chemistry developed out of pharmacy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There is only the vaguest connection with with the alchemists. Alchemy was actually a branch of astrology.
Think of Mercury. Mercury is a planet, but it also a metal. And prior to Christianity, he was also a god. In French the name for Wednesday is Mecredi, because that was the day formerly sacred to Mercury. It isn’t quite so obvious in English but it still works. Wednesday is named after Woden, who is the corresponding god to Mercury.
This is just one example of the nearly forgotten links between astrology, alchemy and everyday life. There would have been a time when all this would have been second nature to everyone. Traces of the way we used to view the world can still be spotted if you look hard enough for them. The overall system was very elegant. If you look up into the sky there are seven objects that you can see with the naked eye that move relative to the background of the stars. Five of them are planets, with the Sun and the Moon being the other two. Each of these were associated with a pagan god to whom a day of the week was sacred. This is the still the basis of the names of the days of the week, and the reason why there are seven of them. Sunday and Monday are obvious enough, but the other days have their god and their planet too. And each has its metal.
Saturn’s holy day is Saturday. Saturn is the most distant of the planets and moves the most slowly and was associated with wisdom, old age, time, harvests and death. With the advent of Christianity he has had to go underground, but he is still around. He turns up at New Years Eve parties sometimes, disguised as Old Father Time sporting a long beard and carrying a clock or a timer. Midwinter was formerly the season of the festival of Saturnalia, which judging by ancient accounts was one heck of a party. Saturn’s rule over harvests also explains why the Grim Reaper, another of his guises, is portrayed carrying a sickle rather than a more efficient means of extermination.
The metal of Saturn is lead, one of the oldest, probably the oldest, mined metals. Its harmful properties have been known for a long time and are rather consistent with the character of Saturn. There is a condition caused by an overdose of lead that is called Saturnism. The big project of the alchemists was the conversion of lead into gold. The price difference between lead and gold makes this a commercially appealing proposition. But interestingly, the financial reward wasn’t the motivation – after all turning anything into gold would be profitable. You need to know the astrological associations to decode it. Lead was the metal of death. Gold belonged to the Sun, the bringer of life. Transforming one to another might open up a way to overcome death. The alchemists were carrying out the first research into anti-aging.
But as a result of this intense interest lead was a very well known substance, and the different sources of it were studied closely. One of lead’s ores is vermillion, which as the name suggests is bright red. It’s also known as red lead. This vivid red was prized and is still used from time to time to colour the wax seals that are used to verify legal documents. Knowing how popular bright red colours are in lipsticks, it seems to me almost inevitable that at some stage in history red lead has been used as a pigment in lipstick. This is stated as a fact on some internet sites, but I haven’t been able to find any direct evidence to corroborate it. Nonetheless, I am going to stick my neck out and say that I think that at some stage in history there was lipstick that contained lead.
But I don’t think that the people making and using it would have been ignorant of the dangers of doing this. There was plenty of evidence that lead wasn’t good for you, and on top of that there was the association with Saturn, the bringer of death. It would have been regarded as a bad idea simply from this.
So I have a feeling that there must have been a time when there was lipstick around with lead in, and people warning that no good would come of it. For some reason this story seems to have stuck. And the reason isn’t perhaps too hard to see. Women have always wanted to make their lips red. As George Orwell reported in the forties, women prisoners who had to sew mail sacks would extract to red dye from them to give a makeshift red colour. Womens’ vanity has always been scorned by some. In the same article Orwell lampoons a judge who had complained that modern women used too many cosmetics. As Orwell points out, women in all ages have used too many cosmetics and conservatives have always disapproved. Spreading a story that lip colourings are deadly sounds like just the kind of thing killjoys have always done as well.
When I first started working in a cosmetic formulation lab in the early Eighties the lead in lipstick story was circulating via photocopies of a supposed lab report with some coverage in the cheaper newspapers and magazines. The old hands rolled their eyes – they had heard it all before. It continues to come back in new forms. A few years back – around 2006 I think – it went a bit viral via an e-mail that got widely passed around including a lot of convincing but false circumstantial detail. It was rapidly spread and equally quickly rebutted. But there was an amusing subscript when it was picked up on by the perennially badly informed Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
They had some testing done and did indeed find some small traces of lead – down in the parts per million level so hardly alarming. Nonetheless, the FDA chose to investigate and carried out a proper study. This found similar levels. Even at face value the numbers weren’t particularly significant. Several were zero, most were barely above the limit of detection. Even the highest figure found, which was 7 ppm, was way too low to constitute any meaningful health risk. Just to make this clear, an average adult has about 1200 micrograms of lead in total in their blood stream. I did some experiments and worked out that an average application of lipstick weighs around 0.075g. If you assume that there is 7 micrograms per gram, using the highest figure from the FDA study, then you are going to add less than a microgram of lead even if every bit that got onto your lips found its way into your bloodstream, not a very likely scenario. Increasing your current loading of lead by a lot less than 0.1% doesn’t strike me as risky.
But delve a bit deeper into the FDA report and it is even more benign. They have published the method they used to do the testing, so anybody who feels inclined can check their results. When you look at the details it turns out that they have had to work really hard just to get the lead extracted from the lipstick in order to measure it. In fact they have had to use hydrofluoric acid, the strongest mineral acid that exists. The reason for this is that the lead is not added during manufacture, but is a trace contaminant in some of the minerals used to make the pigments. This is inevitable. Lead is a naturally occurring element that is found in a lot of minerals. But it is generally bound up in a form that makes it unavailable.
So there is no need to worry about using lipstick. There is little if any lead in them, and what is there is not going to get out of the lipstick into your body unless you take it to a laboratory and deliberately extract it.
The ancients were of course right to be suspicious of lead. It is certainly dangerous stuff and can be a serious environmental problem. Putting it into petrol was one of the doziest ideas in history. This was the opposite to lipstick, the lead was added in a form that made it extremely easy to be absorbed. Fortunately leaded petrol is now a thing of the past in most countries, and quite rightly. Lead is always potentially a danger, even though there is no need to worry about it in lipstick.
But despite all this, the story that lipstick contains lead is one that continues to crop up. I have a feeling that it is going to continue to do so. A quick search on Twitter shows that most days somebody is pushing the idea. This is a scare story with long history and deep roots; I have become rather fond of it. I suggest next time you hear it, enjoy it as part of our cultural heritage. But don’t let it put you off enjoying your favourite shade.
Having predicted this story would be back, I was nonetheless surprised that it happened quite so soon. The FDA updated their debunking of the story with some further results, which did not alter what they found before. This was picked up on by an article in Forbes by a journalist who obviously didn’t understand what the data meant. Scaremongers started promoting it and the main stream media picked up on it. I couldn’t resist joining in. This is my take on the latest iteration of this long running myth.
Normal blood levels.
Idiotic scaremongering from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
The actual report from the FDA
As I Please column in Tribune 28 April 1944 George Orwell