The scary truth about kids’ face painting

Face painting has become a popular fun game at kids’ events. / Net photo

It has become a norm for almost all children’s events to have a face painter. From birthday parties to kids’ carnivals, among other festivities, face painting has become a popular form of art in entertainment. 

Kids at these parties squirm in cheer and excitement as they queue impatiently waiting for the artist to cover their faces with colourful designs. Whereas this is all fun and games, is it safe?


Why you should be concerned


A recent study by National Quality Control Laboratory of the Ministry of Health and the University of Nairobi reported that 59 samples of paints collected in Nairobi were found to contain lead. And health experts say that no amount of lead is considered safe for humans. Hence, the products were found to be unsuitable for children.


“Lead in paint used for face painting can be source of lead poisoning,” said Dr Peggy Mutai of the University of Nairobi and the study’s lead author.

The study indicated that lead poisoning can happen through inhalation and absorption through the skin. And that most importantly, it is through ingestion as the painting is carried out on young children who are likely to touch the paint and ingest it. 

In Rwanda, the trend has picked up big time, with face painters present at every kid’s function there is. But are people aware of the health risks associated with this practice? 

What medics say 

Dr Wilbur Bushara says some face paint contains elements that are linked to development of cancer; others have potential to cause hormone disruption or developmental delays.

He points out the possibility of skin allergies and the risky exposure to skin cancer because of the metals in the paints. 

“There is also a risk for skin colour and texture distortions for children or even adults who do face painting,” he says.

Experts reveal that face paint contains lead yet the World Health Organisation describes it as a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems and is particularly harmful to young children.

Lead in the body is distributed to the brain, liver, kidney and bones. It is stored in the teeth and bones, where it accumulates over time. Human exposure is usually assessed through the measurement of lead in blood.

Health experts say children are exposed to skin allergies and cancer some of face painting products that contain lead. / Net photo

Dr Rachna Pande also explains that presence of lead and cadmium exposes children to neurological and intellectual impairment, kidney damage, infertility, cancer of the bladder and lungs.

Face painting is hazardous for kids because most of the face paints and cosmetics marketed for children contain heavy toxic metals like lead, cadmium, styrene compounds, volatile organic compounds like benzene and toluene, she says.

“Exposure to volatile organic compounds carries risk of causing allergic reactions, hormonal disruption and irregularities,” Pande adds.

Information from WHO also shows that an additional source of exposure is the use of certain types of unregulated cosmetics.

Young children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead and can suffer profound and permanent adverse health effects, particularly affecting the development of the brain and nervous system.

Required measures 

Medics urge the use of paints with natural pigments from fruits, vegetables and flowers, for these almost totally eliminate the risk of contaminants and heavy metals.

Products that say ‘non-comedogenic’ are also recommended, for this means they will not clog pores or cause acne breakouts.

Pande reveals that there is no safe level of these chemicals, for even small quantities are harmful to children, and when there is the frequency of exposure, then there is greater risk.

Hence, the best way is to avoid the use of face paint. Organic colours prepared from plants are healthier and can be alternate option for face paints containing chemicals. If chemicals containing face paints are used at all, their use around eyes, nose and mouth should be avoided. After application, it should be removed as soon as possible, she advises.


Livingstone Buyinza, a businessman and father, says that his children have always enjoyed face painting, and he was always happy to oblige whenever they requested for it, for what he wanted was for them to have fun and be happy.

However, after learning about the possible health risks associated with this, he had to reconsider allowing this for his children. 

“I was told it can be a cause for allergies and skin cancer, this is why I am now against children going for this form of entertainment,” he says.

Assoumpta Mukeshimana, a journalist and mother of one, says that even though she doesn’t apply it to her child, she doesn’t see any problem for those who do it for their children.

“If it is to make them happy why not, unless doctors or other specialists have found some toxic substance in it, and if this is the case then I think they should stop it immediately,” Mukeshimana says.

Regis Ashimwe, owner of a kids’ playground in Kanombe and Gahanga in Kigali, says whereas there are possibilities of certain health risks, they are mostly linked to usage of poor quality products.

“It depends on the materials; if they are fake, they can cause allergies. Yes, we have had some complaints from parents about their kids getting allergies but they are not as many, this is why I always advise the painters to always aim for quality when buying this paint,” he says. 

Ashimwe observes that before 2016, face painting was not as common as it has become in recent years.

“For example, this year and last year, face painting has been growing; we have had so many clients, especially over the weekend. Just like the way kids ask for ice cream is the way they ask for face painting,” he says.

He, therefore, believes that because this activity has become so popular, there is need for all parties involved to be cautious, especially the artists who apply this paint.

He points out that the paint used is mostly imported from Nairobi and Kampala and that he always advises his workers to look out for quality. 

Buyinza is of the view that just like how food and drugs are thoroughly inspected to assure safety, there is need for cosmetics to be heavily regulated on the market today.

He says, since it is evident how risky these products can be to one’s health, the responsible parties should take action in ruling out the toxic products.

“However, we should also take responsibility as parents in the meantime and ensure that our kids are exposed to the right kind of products, this can be done by seeking out professionals when applying these products,” he says.

Ashimwe says whereas the cessation of face painting as an activity could mean a huge loss for kids’ entertainment businesses and the entertainment industry all together, he believes that people’s safety comes first.

He, however, suggests that instead of refraining from the use of face paints altogether, the government should instead regulate the products and the business owners as well to ensure that the products used are of quality.

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