Warning: The scary truth about your child's face paint

Monday February 3 2020


By John Namkwahe @johnteck3

It seems like face painting has become a popular fun activity found at every corner of a mall or at a child’s birthday party where the painter neatly places a booklet for children to choose which design they want painted on their face.

But is face painting really safe?

Two years ago, Halima Mwakapala, 31, from Tegeta in Dar es Salaam recalls when her 6-year-old daughter, Fridah, had experienced allergic reaction on skin shortly after she got her face painted.

“I took my daughter with me when I attended a friend’s birthday party. After entering the house, there was a face painter by the garden, surrounded by many children waiting for their turns to get their face painted,” Ms Halima narrates to Your Health in an interview.

Therefore, she allowed her daughter to get her face painted as well.

“The painter applied paints on my daughter’s face but mostly on her cheeks,” she adds.


According to the mother, after a few hours, her daughter began complaining that she was experiencing irritation and itching on her face.

“When I washed off the paints, I noticed her cheeks were a little red. I was worried, but later the condition disappeared and she did not complain of soreness or irritation,” says Ms Halima.

Ms Halima represents thousands of parents who usually take their children to public places to enjoy face painting during public holidays or weekends. But just like Ms Halima, many parents do ponder over the safety of these face paints, hygiene of the reusable brushes and reactions to their children’s delicate skins.

Presence of harmful chemicals in face paints

Findings from the Breast Cancer Fund report ‘Pretty Scary 2: Unmasking Toxic Chemicals in Kids’ Makeup’, published in 2016 and co-released by U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) show potentially harmful chemicals including lead and cadmium that are contaminated in the face paints products marketed to children.

Lead can cause altered brain development and learning difficulties while cadmium disrupts the body’s hormones and is linked to breast, kidney, lung and prostate cancer, according to medical sources. The report further unmasks the frightening ingredients found in toy aisles across America that sell everything from lip balm, to nail and makeup kits marketed to children at various ages from 4-14. The Breast Cancer Fund sent 48 Halloween face paints to an independent laboratory to have them tested for the presence of heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, and mercury: Almost half of these – 21 items – had trace amounts of at least one heavy metal.

Similar research was also conducted in neighbouring country Kenya, whereby almost all paints used in children’s face-paints in Nairobi had been confirmed to contain lead.

The study reports testing 59 samples of the paints collected in Nairobi and all of them were found to contain lead. No amount of lead is considered safe for humans, World Health Organisation (WHO) reports.

Only one sample had a label indicating the paint was meant for face painting, with only three warning that the products were not suitable for children under three years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has made it clear that there is no safe level of lead. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that lead, a metal found in the environment was responsible for an estimated 1.06 million deaths in 2017.

Moreover, WHO says there is no known ‘safe’ blood lead concentration; with even the lowest levels also associated with decreased intelligence in children, behavioural difficulties and learning problems.

A face painter’s testimony

Speaking exclusively to Your Health, Jackson Robert* from Dar es Salaam says since he started his career as a face painter, he has never received any complaint from his customers regarding the said health and skin complications.

“Speaking from my experience, I have never faced such complaints from my customers. But, I have met some parents whose children experience an allergic reaction when they get their face painted, so I don’t paint them,” says the painter.

Jackson says he charges between Sh1000 and Sh3000 to paint one child.

On where he purchases these paints from, he says, “I buy the face paints from shops in Kariakoo. Most of them are imported from China. They are labelled non-toxic. That’s how I select my face paints.”

However, Jackson admits that there are some unfaithful local painters who use fake face paints.

“It is true there are fake face paints that cause an allergic reaction when they are used on the skin,” he admits.

Dermatologist’s views

“Lead in paints used for face painting can cause serious health complications such as cancer, infertility in both men and women, to mention but a few,” says Dr Andrew Foi, a dermatologist based at Muhimbili National Hospital (MNH). The expert further says lead poisoning can happen through inhalation and absorption through the skin. But it’s not just face paints that should give parents cause for concern, reveals the skin expert.

“Anything applied on the skin can either cause a short or long-term allergic reaction to the user. Therefore, even cosmetics marketed to children can cause a reaction. The paints used for drawing temporary or permanent tattoo also contain harmful chemicals,” says Dr Foi.


The way Halima responded to her daughter’s reaction is how every parent should respond, says Dr Foi. He says the first thing a parent ought to do if his/her child complaints of skin irritation or itching after the application of face paint is to wash it off with clean water. “I then urge the parents to seek medical advice immediately if the irritation continues,” Dr Foi explains.

Dr Foi has therefore advised the parents to first inspect the face paints marketed to children so as to protect their children from developing the health complications.

“There are imported counterfeit face paints at certain market places whose lead content should give parents a much bigger scare,” says the skin expert. The expert further warns that the face paints in question, shouldn’t be applied on cuts, scabs, cold sores, a rash, flaky skin, runny noses or any other sign of infection.

“Parents should convince their children to stay away from the face painting table, instead they can make a fun home activity and they can do it together,” says the specialist.

WHO recommends solutions to curb the harmful chemicals

Speaking exclusively to Your Health, a health specialist at WHO’s country office in Dar es Salaam, Mr Maximilian Mapunda suggests that the national authorities should impose a ban on ingredients linked to cancer, reproductive or developmental harm that are contaminated in children’s face paints and cosmetics.

Mr Maximilian further calls upon the authorities to create a publicly accessible database of face paints and cosmetic products, ingredients and safety studies to promote public data sharing among the manufactures and consumers.

“Pre-market safety assessment of face paints and cosmetics ingredients is essential so as to safeguard the children,” says Mr Mapunda.

Tanzania’s authorities response over harmful face paints

In response to the aforementioned reports, a researcher at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (Muhas), Prof Amos Mwakigonja acknowledges the presence of harmful chemicals in the face paints marketed to children.

“I heard about such a thing last year, but Muhas as one of the major institutions undertaking health research in the country, we are yet to conduct the research in that field,” says Prof Amos who doubles as Head of Pathology Department at Muhas. He adds, “So far, there is no plan to conduct such a research, but as long as it is a public concern, this matter should be an item in our agenda.”

Ms Neema Mtemvu, communications officer at Tanzania Bureau of Standards (TBS) says, “We will work on the matter in order to be sure if the said harmful face paints products are available in our country.”

Fortunately, an increasing number of companies globally are already making safer products without chemicals linked to cancer, hormone disruption, or other health problems. This proves that the shift to safer production is possible.

*not his real name.