Simple Steps for Safer Face Paint

From spooky to adorable, face paint can put the finishing touches on a great Halloween costume.

It’s also a popular alternative to masks, which may be prohibited at school and can restrict vision – a big safety concern for trick-or-treaters on dark streets.

But what exactly are you putting on your children’s skin when transforming them into ghosts or tiger cubs? You might be surprised.

In 2014 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tested 10 face paints for heavy metal contamination. They detected lead in all 10 samples. There is no safe level of exposure to lead, and because it’s a neurotoxin, it’s particularly dangerous to children’s brains.

Each of the 10 samples also contained nickel, cobalt and chromium, all heavy metals that can cause skin allergies. Nine of the 10 paints contained arsenic.

The FDA tests confirm findings by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics which in 2009 tested 10 face paints for heavy metals and found lead in every one of them. Six of the face paints tested by the campaign contained nickel, cobalt or chromium.

What’s more, product labels gave misleading information. Some claimed to be “hypoallergenic,” even though they were made with known skin allergens. You can read the campaign’s full report here.

Sen. Chuck Shumer, D-N.Y., took up the cause last weekend, calling on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to tighten regulation of novelty cosmetics and face paints. He warned parents to use caution with these products, especially those produced in China.

Before picking up face paint for Halloween (or a birthday party, school play or fair), read these simple steps:

Handle kids’ faces with care

Follow instructions for applying and removing face paint. Avoid the sensitive eye area and mouth. Kids tend to swallow products applied to lips, so it’s best to keep lips bare or use regular lipstick (check EWG’s Skin Deep database for good options).

Sweat can cause face paint to run, so if your child is likely to get hot, leave extra room around the eyes and mouth, bring a handkerchief for dabbing running paint or skip paint entirely. Same goes for rain.

Watch out for allergens

There is no standard or definition for the term “hypoallergenic.” Some face paints and regular cosmetics marketed as “hypoallergic” contain known skin allergens such as methylisothiazolinone, a common preservative.

Before committing to a Halloween look, smear a little face paint on your child’s forearm to test for allergic reactions. If you see redness, swelling or irritation, don’t put the paint on your child’s face.

If your child experiences an allergic reaction to a product whose label doesn’t disclose allergens, contact the FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator in your state or fill out a Voluntary MedWatch form. These resources help the FDA identify and track problem products – and potentially remove them from the market.

Check labels for color additives

Color additives can be toxic. By law, the FDA must approve any color additives used in cosmetics, face paint and novelty and theatrical makeup. It also regulates how colors are used: it may approve an additive to color hair, for example, but not skin.

Don’t buy face paint with non-FDA-approved colors. You can find out which ones are approved on FDA’s Summary of Color Additives. The FDA has approved eight fluorescent (neon) colors for cosmetics and just one luminescent (glow in the dark) color (zinc sulfide). 

DIY face paints colored with food

Consider making face paint at home with common ingredients like lotion, cornstarch and color from foods such as beet or spinach. Various recipes are available online, so experiment until you find one that works for your family.

If you try a homemade concoction, apply carefully, especially around eyes and mouths, do a skin test before the big day and watch out for staining. Homemade paints may not last as long as commercial options, so be prepared to reapply.

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