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Consumers urged to check Grecian Formula, other hair dyes for lead

As the U.S. grapples with lead contamination in water in cities including Newark, New Jersey, and Flint, Michigan, the toxin remains on store shelves as the active ingredient in at least two brands of hair dye geared to men.

After decades of debate, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week said it is banning lead acetate from hair dye, the only consumer product in which it is still legally permitted as an ingredient, and even then with a warning. 

"There is no longer a reasonable certainty of no harm from the approved use of lead acetate in hair coloring products," the FDA said in a statement

The agency is giving manufacturers a year to reformulate products without the chemical, already banned in Canada and the European Union, and urged consumers to read labels for ingredients in the meantime.

"There is no safe exposure level for lead," stated the FDA, citing the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. "There were deficiencies identified in a 1980 study estimating exposure to lead from hair dye that originally supported its use; and the fact that blood lead levels in the U.S. have dropped significantly since 1980, so we no longer can conclude that potential exposure to lead from lead acetate-containing hair dyes is insignificant," the agency explained.

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Lead acetate darkens gray hair when used for several days, and has for decades been used in a few men's hair dyes, with Grecian Formula perhaps the best known. 

Combe, a privately held maker of personal care products, created the men's hair color category when it came out with Grecian Formula 16 in 1962 -- nearly four decades later it still held more than 70 percent of the market, led by its Just For Men brand. By 2001, the category was reportedly generating more than $140 million in sales.

Consumer advocates that urged the FDA to enact the regulation say there are two brands on the market with lead acetate as the active ingredient: Grecian Formula and Youthair, made by Ascend Products. Both brands with lead acetate as the active ingredient could be found online at websites including and


Of three product lines, lead acetate is listed as an ingredient in two on Ascend Products' Youthair website.

Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director the Environmental Defense Fund -- one of 12 groups that petitioned the FDA to enact the ban -- provided CBS MoneyWatch with photos and a dated package insert of a bottle of Grecian Formula containing lead acetate purchased in March 2017.

Both companies also sell alternative products using another color additive, bismuth citrate, instead of lead. 

"While Combe disagrees with the FDA's analysis of the color additive petition, we note that neither Grecian Formula nor any other hair coloring product manufactured or distributed by Combe contains lead acetate," a spokesperson for Combe said by email. "The FDA's proposed rule will therefore have no impact on Combe."

Asked when the company stopped using lead acetate, the spokesperson said: "I don't know the exact date, but it was quite a long time ago." He added that he would try to determine the date, but had not obtained the information more than a day later.

Ascend Products did not respond to requests for comment.

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