Ingredient Intel: Lead Acetate

This is the sixth installment of our ongoing series aimed to help you better understand the ingredients—both desirable and undesirable—in your home cleaning and personal care products. We arm you with information and provide a solid assessment of each ingredient so you can make educated decisions for yourself and your family.

Ingredient Intel: Lead Acetate

What It Is: An inorganic salt with the chemical signature Pb(CH3COO)2.

Where It’s Found: Sometimes in face cream for people of color, but lead acetate is found mainly in nail polish (where it strengthens the color) and gradual or progressive hair dye products, like Grecian Formula 16, usually marketed to men. The beauty of these hair dye products is they tint gradually, so most people don’t notice the transformation. Because the color is stable, it will not diminish quickly so maintenance applications are only necessary about once a week.

What’s the Problem?: Suspected of being a reproductive toxin and carcinogen. Lead is a neurotoxin that accumulates in the body and can cause memory problems and high blood pressure in adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “No safe blood lead level has been identified.” Both Canada and the EU have banned lead acetate in cosmetics, and California deems it a carcinogen.

How Are You Exposed?: As the solution is rubbed on the hair, it penetrates the cuticle and the Pb2+ ions react with sulfur atoms in the proteins to form lead sulfide (PbS), which is a dark color. The more you use a progressive dye, the more pigment your hair has and the darker it appears. Lead acetate can also be absorbed into the skin if you have a cut or lesion on your hands or scalp while using the dye.

History: Lead, a naturally occurring soft, bluish-gray metal, has played a role in human culture for centuries, dating as far back as 3500 BC. It has been used in water pipes, makeup, paint, and as an additive in gasoline. Lead acetate has been used in the United States as a color additive in progressive hair dyes for over 40 years.

How Can You Avoid Lead Acetate?

  • Read the ingredients on the label. You may find it listed as acetic acid, lead salt, lead diacetate, lead salt acetic acid, plumbous acetate, acetate de plomb (French), Bleiacetat (German), dibasic lead acetate, lead diacetate, lead dibasic acetate, lead (2+) acetate, lead (II) acetate.
  • Pay attention to directions.
  • Think twice before using.
  • To find hair dyes and nail polish without lead acetate, consult the Skin Deep database of the Environmental Working Group at
Linda Mason Hunter


Linda Mason Hunter ( is a pioneer in America’s green movement. Her first book, The Healthy Home: An Attic-To-Basement Guide to Toxin-Free Living (published in 1989), was reviewed in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and featured on “Good Morning, America,” CNN, MSNBC, Pacifica Radio, and the CBC, among others. She’s also the author of Green Clean, The Environmentally Sound Guide to Cleaning Your Home. Three Green Rats, An Eco Tale ( is her 13th published book and first work of fiction, for ages 6 to 12 “and precocious adults.” Linda can be heard daily hosting “The Green Zone” on on KFMG 99.1 FM, Des Moines’ award-winning low power radio station, streaming at posts from this author →