Say What? Study Finds US Cosmetics Contain Toxic Chemicals

PFAS have been produced since the 1940s and are used in everything from cookware and electronics to fast-food wrappers, and now...cosmetics.

By Simone Sydel4 min read
Say What? Study Finds US Cosmetics Contain Toxic Chemicals

What Exactly Are PFAS?

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are chemicals that contain bonds between carbon and multiple fluorine atoms. These strong carbon-fluorine bonds give PFAS useful chemical properties for making products that repel oils, stains, water, etc. They’re also needed for efficient non-stick pans.

However, the same carbon-fluorine bonds that make PFAS useful for many everyday things also make them extremely resistant to breakdown and destruction. This is why PFAS are often labeled as "forever chemicals" because, in addition to not breaking down naturally, it can be very expensive and probably impossible to destroy and get rid of them completely.

But what's probably the scariest thing about them is the fact that PFAS have been found to accumulate in our bodies.

PFAS Identified in Nearly Half of Cosmetics Tested

A peer-reviewed study, published in Environmental Science & Technology in June 2021, 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 items.

The researchers tested cosmetic products purchased from outlets such as Ulta Beauty, Sephora, Target, and Bed Bath & Beyond in the United States and Canada and found these forever chemicals in a whopping 48% of the products. Products that were checked for individual PFAS compounds included cosmetics made by dozens of popular brands, including L’Oréal, Mac, Cover Girl, Clinique, Maybelline, Smashbox, Nars, Estée Lauder, and more.

The researchers tested cosmetic products and found these forever chemicals in 48% of them. 

To break down their findings, two-thirds of liquid lipsticks, two-thirds of foundations, and three-fourths of waterproof mascaras contained high levels of fluorine, which is just one indication of these chemicals. Additionally, fluorine was detected in concealers, lip balms, blushes, nail polish, and more.

In addition, another in-depth look of 29 products found that 28 of the products in which PFAS were identified didn’t disclose the chemicals on their product labels. That means only 8% of the 231 cosmetics screened for total fluorine had any PFAS listed as ingredients, and only 3% of the 29 cosmetics in which targeted PFAS were measured had any PFAS listed as ingredients.

Therefore, the authors of the study compiled a list of labeled ingredients and a heatmap relating frequency to total fluorine concentration. Some of these ingredient sources of fluorine include both natural and synthetic forms of minerals and clays used as bulking agents and/or colorants, mica, talc, silica, Nylon-12, methicone, dimethicone, acrylate, methacrylate, and silicone polymers.

Why Are PFAS Used in Cosmetics?

There are over 9,000 known PFAS compounds — 600 of which U.S. manufacturers use in everyday products.

People are exposed to PFAS constantly as they’re found in our food (due to PFAS building up in crops and livestock, as well as PFAS being used in food packaging), the air and dust in our homes (via cleaning products), in our drinking water (affecting an estimated 6 million Americans), and in various personal products (such as air fresheners, cleaning products, and cookware). 

PFAS are most often used as preservatives and emollients in makeup.

The role of PFAS in cosmetics isn't very different from the use of the same chemicals in cleaning products, for example. PFAS are most often used as preservatives to increase a product’s durability, as emollients to allow better spreadability, as well as to help with better wear and give a cosmetically elegant finish, and for water resistance, among other things.

They’re generally cheap materials that are easy to formulate, and they play well with other ingredients in a given cosmetic product. Using cheap materials allows for more affordable products, which we all prefer instead of opting for something high-end or luxury.

Therefore, we can't deny that PFAS have an important role in cosmetics; however, they can, unfortunately, be harmful to our health.

The Health Risks Associated with PFAS

A 2015 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that nearly 97% of Americans have PFAS in their blood. This isn't surprising when you consider that personal care products are often applied to the eyes and lips — near the tear ducts and mucous membranes, which is how they can be absorbed into the bloodstream relatively easily.

Scientists are still learning about the long-term health effects of PFAS exposure, but growing evidence suggests that these chemicals may pose serious risks to our health.

“PFAS have been linked to birth defects, liver and thyroid disease, immune suppression, increased risk of asthma, hormone disruption, high cholesterol and a range of other serious health problems — including some forms of cancer,” according to Dr. Alexis Parcells, a board-certified plastic surgeon and owner of Parcells Plastic Surgery.

PFAS have been linked to birth defects, liver and thyroid disease, hormone disruption, and more.

The scariest part in all this is that research is still ongoing, and more data is needed to determine the full effects of these chemicals, which, judging by what we already know, we certainly shouldn't have much hope for something better coming out in the future.

How To Protect Yourself

The release of the study coincides with a bipartisan Senate bill called the "No PFAS in Cosmetics Act," according to The Guardian.

The bill was introduced by Senators Susan Collins and Richard Blumenthal and would specifically ban the inclusion of PFAS chemicals in cosmetics products, such as makeup, moisturizer, and perfume.

"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."

But the road to change is a long one; therefore, you need to know how to protect yourself now instead of just waiting for something to happen. One of the most efficient ways to avoid PFAS exposure is to check the labels of the cosmetics you’re currently using, including makeup, skincare, and personal hygiene products, such as shampoos, conditioners, shower gels, etc.

“Toss out any product that contains the words ‘PTFE’ or ‘perfluoro’ in the list of ingredients,” Dr. Alexis Parcells advises.

Many products don’t disclose all of their ingredients and PFAS aren’t regulated stringently.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for consumers to determine whether a product contains PFAS since many products don’t disclose all of the ingredients included and they’re not regulated stringently.

So the best thing to do is take it easy, check multiple sources for suspicious ingredients, make a list of ingredients you feel like you should dig deeper into, and try to be a smart consumer. A good place to start is by checking the Environmental Working Group’s list of verified toxin-free products as they have reviewed over 74,000 products and identified over 1,800 of them as free of chemicals of concern, or “EWG verified.”

However, even when doing this, remember to think critically because there’s always the opportunity of bias when it comes to such websites. This is why checking multiple websites can be helpful to your research and can provide you with further information.

Closing Thoughts

Knowing that you may be using products that could put your health at risk is never a pleasant thing. Therefore, it's important to do what you can to stay safe and healthy, including doing a ton of research and being more careful when choosing your household and personal care products to avoid toxic chemicals.

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