Consumer groups file petition to ban lead acetate in hair dyes

Popular men’s cosmetic products are raising concerns over a potentially harmful ingredient. Lead acetate can be found in Grecian Formula and Youthair hair dye products in the U.S. Consumer groups filed a petition to the FDA to crack down on this lead compound, which is a known neurotoxin.

For nearly a decade, Europe and Canada have banned the sale of these same products because they contained lead acetate, and those manufacturers offer consumers in those countries a lead-free alternative. So then why are American consumers still able to purchase these products? If the petition is successful, that may change, reports CBS News correspondent Anna Werner. 

Richard Gandolf didn’t like going gray. So for the past 20 years, the 73-year-old retired civil servant has been using a cream from Youthair that turns his gray hair dark. 

Grecian Formula is another, familiar from those 1980s TV commercials. “I think the gray’s going. Slowly. Gradually. And no one is noticing,” the ad said.

Something the ads don’t mention, however, is that both of those products contain lead acetate, a lead compound which the CDC lists as a possible carcinogen. The ingredient can be harmful, especially to children.

Consumer groups including the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) are now asking the FDA to get the lead acetate out. 

“We want FDA to remove its approval for lead acetate as a color additive in hair dyes,” EDF’s Tom Neltner said. 

Manufacturers of the products tell consumers to only use the dye on their hair, but not all follow directions. 

One 2014 study in the Journal of Clinical Neuromuscular Disease documents the case of one man who used progressive hair dye with lead acetate to color his beard and had “numbness and tingling” in “both feet and hands” for seven months. 

“He was very surprised that there was lead in his product and he stopped the product the moment he discovered that there was lead in it,” the study’s author, Dr. Wissam Deeb, said.

But lead acetate is a much bigger concern for children. 

Government health authorities warn “do not allow children to touch hair colored with lead-containing dyes” because the compounds “can rub off onto their hands and be transferred to their mouths.” 

“When you use it in the real world, it’s going to be lead on the soap dispenser. Lead on the faucet. Lead on the counter and kids will get exposed to it that way,” Neltner said.  

The company that owns Grecian Formula, Combe, declined an on-camera interview but told us in a statement that the data on hand-to-mouth transmission of lead is “insufficient” and “lead acetate has been used safely as a color additive in ‘progressive’ hair dye products for decades based on extensive scientific studies.” 

The FDA does currently approve the use of lead acetate in these products. We also reached out to American Industries International, the manufacturer of Youthair products, but did not receive a response. Youthair does offer a lead-free alternative product in the U.S.