For most beaders, creating handcrafted jewelry that is well made but also safe for the wearer is a top priority. That means trying to make sure strung and woven components can't easily get snagged and break or scratch the people wearing the jewelry. It also means understanding the potentially harmful additives used in jewelry components and if they pose a risk while making the jewelry or to people while they are wearing the jewelry.
One concern that has come up over the years is the possibility of lead in jewelry components and beads. Lead exposure can be very dangerous, especially for children. This article gives you basic information to help understand the risk of lead, the laws associated with it, and what manufacturer's have done to limit the potential for exposure.
Lead Exposure Consequences
Lead exposure can cause serious health issues, especially for children since it is more readily absorbed by their bodies. Lead needs to be ingested to cause health problems. In other words, it must be put in the mouth, swallowed, or inhaled. It is generally believed that lead touching the skin in the small amounts that it is contained in jewelry is not absorbed in the body in sufficient amounts to be dangerous.
Although jewelry is intended to be worn, there is always the possibility that beads or components could inadvertently end up in someone's mouth, especially a child who doesn't know better. One other way lead could be accidentally ingested or particles inhaled is if you break or grind the components.
There is federal law that says acceptable levels of lead in children's products, including jewelry. In addition, California has one of the strictest laws governing acceptable levels of lead in adult jewelry sold in California.
How is Lead Used in Jewelry Components?
To understand the potential for lead to be contained in your jewelry, it is helpful to know the ways lead can be used in jewelry components. Lead can be used to make metal or plastic jewelry parts heavier, in paint to brighten the colors, in plastic to stabilize or soften plastic and also in crystal beads to make the crystal reflect light better, make it easier to cut and have a longer working time during manufacturing.
Do All Crystal and Glass Beads Contain Lead?
Traditionally, crystal beads and components, such as those from leading crystal manufacturer Swarovski, do contain lead in the form of lead oxide. According to a lead information sheet from Halstead Bead, Inc., a well known supplier of crystal beads, this lead cannot be absorbed directly through skin; only by ingestion or inhalation. In the past, Swarovski has stated that the lead is bound up within a glass matix that prevents it from rubbing off. However, Swarovski still emphasizes that their crystal beads should not be used by children.
Since September 2012, Swarovski has modified the way they make their crystal beads and components to allow them to offer the same brilliant cuts and reflection, but using a crystal glass that is greater than 99% lead free. The new lead free product line is called Advanced Crystal and is widely available at retailers that sell Swarovski products. The composition of the new crystal glass contains 0.009% lead or less, which allows them to be considered lead free. This is a breakthrough that helps Swarovski and jewelry makers using their components, ensure their products meet federal and state lead laws. The best part is that the new components are available in the same great innovative shapes, with the same faceting and level of brilliance and color.
This does not mean that all cystal and glass beads in the market, including those made by Swarovski, are lead free at this time. Stores may still carry older stock of Swarovski components for a period of time that have the former lead levels. In addition, other manufacturers, especially those from overseas, may still be producing components with higher levels of lead than Swarovski, provided they meet the federal quidelines above.
Bottom Line for Beaders
Safety first! Because of the potential for accidental ingestion, never use crystal or glass beads that you believe contain lead in children's jewelry, or allow children (or pets) to play with your crystal beads and components.
Some suppliers recommend washing your hands after handling crystal, but it's not clear whether that's necessary (see my note about Swarovski's statement, above). In addition, other types of crystal, glass beads, and metal components may contain lead. Your best bet is to purchase beads and components from reputable sellers and look on their website or ask customer service if they carry products with lead in them. Most online retailers will have page dedicated to the topic, such as this lead information page from Shipwreck Beads.
Edited by Lisa Yang