On a run-of-the-mill afternoon when I was just 8 years old, I learned the hard way that I had a severe allergy to Red Dye #40. I remember the moment like it was yesterday: I was thrilled when my then-best friend gave me one of those gigantic atomic fire ball cinnamon jawbreakers, but somewhere around the fifth swirl, my lip began to pulsate.
Within the hour, I looked like a Kardashian, with lips so swollen, itching and painful that even cool compresses couldn’t tamp down the pain. A few hours (and a Benadryl) later, the swelling subsided but the memories remained.
Years later, the mere attempt to munch on a maraschino cherry, swallow cough syrup or lick a striped peppermint stick prompted the same reaction.
The main ingredient each has in common: Red Dye #40, a commonly used additive derived from insects that’s present in more foods, beverages and even pill coatings than I can even count. And, while there’s no official allergy test for dye sensitivity, you know you’re allergic if your lips start burning and pulsing every time you’re exposed to a particular dye. The best defense I learned was to practice the fine art of avoiding any item that might contain it.
Then I fell in love with lipstick — one of the most popular items to contain artificial dyes, listed on the label with either the color name plus a number, such as Yellow Dye #5 Lake, or FD&C (shorthand for the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act), which deems the color safe as authorized by the FDA.
However, with Red Dye #40 present in many a lipstick tube, I had to search high and low to find a brand I could use without a blow-up — that also wouldn’t break the bank.
I’m not alone. Bonnie Taub-Dix, a nutritionist in New York and author of “Read It Before You Eat It,” says she never once considered giving up lipstick; rather, she sought out “remedies” such as cortisone creams and other ointments from her doctor that worked to prevent the itching and burning that inevitably accompanied every lipstick application.
So what were two lipstick lovers to do? One day, Taub-Dix and I discussed what we should do about the fact that we love lipstick but it doesn’t love us. Our conclusion: We had to become rabid label readers and help each other find blow-up proof lipsticks that looked great but didn’t contain any irritating coloring or pigmenting chemicals. After much research our list was short: Only the lipsticks from Dr. Hauschka, Origins, Jane Iredale and Aveda fit the bill.
“Luckily, I discovered that Aveda lipsticks are made of natural ingredients and the experience prompted me to keep reading labels of goods and cosmetics,” Taub-Dix says. “I’m now able to pucker up without any problems!”
As for me, I’m at peace with the fact that I have to think twice before taking any over-the-counter remedy that looks more like a cinnamon red hot than a headache reliever — so long as I can swipe on my trusty (Red Dye #40-free) lipstick, that is.
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