Toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” are widely used in cosmetics produced by major brands in the US and Canada, a new study that tested for the chemicals in hundreds of products found.
The peer-reviewed study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, detected what the study’s authors characterized as “high” levels of organic fluorine, an indicator of PFAS, in over half of 231 makeup and personal care samples. That includes lipstick, eyeliner, mascara, foundation, concealer, lip balm, blush, nail polish and more.
The products that most frequently contain high levels of fluorine include waterproof mascara (82% of brands tested), foundations (63%) and liquid lipstick (62%).
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of about 9,000 compounds used to make products such as food packaging, clothing and carpeting water and stain resistant. They are often dubbed “forever chemicals” because they do not naturally break down and have been found to accumulate in humans.
The chemicals are linked at certain levels to cancer, birth defects, liver disease, thyroid disease, decreased immunity, hormone disruption, and a range of other serious health problems.
Researchers were surprised by the high number of products that contain the dangerous chemical, said Tom Bruton, a senior scientist with Green Science Policy Institute and one of the study’s authors.
“This is the first study to look at total fluorine or PFAS in cosmetics so we just didn’t know what we were going to find,” he said. “This is a product that people are spreading on their skin day after day, so there’s really a potential for significant exposure.”
Products that were checked for individual PFAS compounds contained between four and 13 types in each. The study’s authors tested cosmetics made by dozens of brands, including L’Oréal, Ulta, Mac, Cover Girl, Clinique, Maybelline, Smashbox, Nars, Estée Lauder and more.
However, the study didn’t reveal which brands use the toxic chemicals because the authors said they did not want to “pick on” the companies involved. The Guardian could not ask companies for comment because it is unclear which use PFAS.
The chemicals, which are highly mobile and easily move through the environment and humans, can be absorbed through the skin, absorbed by tear ducts or ingested. Green Science Policy Institute notes that people who wear lipstick can accidentally ingest several pounds of the product throughout their lives.
Companies often do not list PFAS on their labels when they use the chemicals, making them nearly impossible for consumers to avoid, Bruton said. Regulatory agencies often allow companies to claim PFAS as a trade secret; however, the study found fluorine was often present in products advertised as “wear-resistant”, “long-lasting” and “waterproof”.
Bruton said cosmetic industry literature reviewed by the study’s authors indicated that PFAS were commonly used in cosmetics to make products waterproof, more durable and easier to spread. However, the supply chain was “complicated”, he added, and it was unclear whether companies were aware that they were adding toxic chemicals.
“It’s not clear whether the brands are actually saying ‘Give us PFAS to use in our products’ or asking for a thickener, for example, or something functional without paying too much attention to what’s in it,” Bruton said.
He noted that about half the samples did not contain high levels of fluorine, which suggests that cosmetics can be made without PFAS.
“That’s why it is important that the government steps up and regulates this more strongly and the cosmetics industry does more [to avoid using the chemicals],” he said.
The study’s release coincides with the introduction of a bipartisan bill in the Senate that would ban the chemicals’ use in makeup. The “No PFAS In Cosmetics Act”, authored by the Maine Republican Susan Collins in the Senate and the Democratic congresswoman Debbie Dingell in the House, would require the Food And Drug Administration to ban the chemicals’ use in such products within 270 days.
“Americans should be able to trust that the products they are applying to their hair or skin are safe,” Collins said in a statement. “To help protect people from further exposure to PFAS, our bill would require the FDA to ban the addition of PFAS to cosmetics products.”