Do pencils contain lead?

Is there lead in pencils?

A pencil has a solid core that is commonly called “Lead”, even though it does not contain any lead.

There is no lead in Modern pencils. The core is made from a non-toxic mineral consisting of carbon called Graphite.

A chunk of Graphite.
A chunk of Graphite.

Modern pencil lead is made using the Conté process. Which is ground-up graphite mixed with clay, that acts as a binder.

Adjusting the proportions of graphite to clay will change the hardness of the pencil lead. 

Have pencils ever contained actual “Lead”?

The quick answer is yes. A very long time ago Lead was used for writing. The common name “pencil lead” is due to the historic associations with the Romans and Egyptians and how they used a lead stylus for writing.

What is Graphite?

Graphite is a mineral that is named from the Greek word “graphein” which means ‘to write’.

Graphite is a dark gray to black, very soft, shiny metallic mineral with a distinctive greasy feeling. One of the Earth’s softest minerals, graphite will easily leave marks on paper, which is why it is used for artist pencils.

Other Names

Graphite also has been called plumbago or black lead. Both of these names come from it being confused with similarly appearing lead ores.

Plumbago gets its name from the Latin word plumbum, which means lead.

The term black lead refers to the processed or powdered version of graphite that is matte black in color.

Characteristics of Graphite

Graphite is an extremely soft mineral, with a greasy feel, low specific gravity, and leaves a dark gray to black marks on paper.

  • Type Mineral
  • Color Black Silver
  • Luster Dull Metallic
  • Hardness is 1-2
  • Streak Black
  • Fracture style  Flaky

Graphite is produced through metamorphism of organic materials deposited as sediment or mixed with sediment. As organic material is metamorphosed, oxygen  and hydrogen are removed, leaving carbon behind to form graphite.

Well-formed crystals of graphite are quite rare in nature, and most graphite occurs in its massive form. It is the most stable form of carbon under standard conditions which allows it to have many other uses beyond writing and drawing.


Additional Resources and Reading

This is just a light overview of graphite and to answer the question

Is there lead in pencils?

If you are interested in more reading about graphite here are some resources that I found to be interesting and enjoyable. They get into a lot more detail and history on pencils and is worth a look if you have the time.