Read time: 7 minutes
Scientists find signs of potentially dangerous “forever chemicals” in more than 100 popular makeup products
If you have ever wondered what gives long-lasting cosmetics their staying power, you may now have your answer. Scientists have found highly persistent, potentially harmful “forever chemicals”—known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—in half of the cosmetic samples they tested in a new study published in June 2021.1
This new study isn’t the first to examine PFAS in cosmetics. In 2018, for example, Swedish research analyzed 31 cosmetic products from 5 product categories (cream, foundation, pencil, powder, and shaving foam) for 39 PFAS using liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS).2 The June 2021 study, however, is larger and more comprehensive. The researchers characterized “high” levels of organic fluorine, a potential marker of PFAS, in more than 200 makeup and personal care samples in the U.S. and Canada, including lipstick, mascara, eyeliner, concealer, nail polish, and foundation. The study revealed that of the tested products, 82% of waterproof mascaras, 63% of foundations, and 62% of liquid lipsticks contain the highest levels of fluorine.
What’s not on the label: lack of disclosure
Cosmetics labeled and marketed as wear-resistant, long-lasting and waterproof were found to contain the highest levels of PFAS. The new study found that about 88% of the tested products failed to include an identity statement on their labels descending order of magnitude as required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Simply put, products with high levels of fluorine, including those confirmed to contain PFAS, did not have PFAS listed on their labels. However, it is unclear whether companies are aware they are adding these toxic chemicals to their products at this stage. The FDA believes that some of these chemicals may be unintentionally present in finished products as a result of “raw material impurities or due to the breakdown of PFAS ingredients that form other types of PFAS.”3
In addition, an in-depth look at 29 of the products with the highest levels of fluorine confirmed that they all contain at least 4 PFAS of concern that are known to break down into other highly toxic and environmentally harmful PFAS, such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). These so-called PFAS “precursors” are important because they often aren’t measured in monitoring studies. Some of the precursors detected in the 2018 and 2021 studies are relatively well-known, such as the mono- and di-fluorotelomer phosphate esters (PAPs). However, the original 2018 study noted other unique precursors, such as fluorinated siloxanes and silanes, which raises a question: What other unknown PFAS are in cosmetics?
Why use PFAS in cosmetic products in the first place?
PFAS are a group of manufactured chemicals that have been around since the 1940s. Because of their nonstick nature and ability to repel grease and water, these chemicals are found in various everyday consumer products, such as nonstick cookware, takeaway boxes, and stain repellants. Labeled “forever chemicals,” these toxic compounds are significantly persistent, and they can linger in the body for years and in the environment for centuries.
So why are PFAS being used in cosmetics? Because PFAS does not break down. The chemicals increase water and oil repellency, which helps with the longevity of cosmetics. However, they are linked to many adverse health effects, including cancer, low fertility, and more.4-7 When it comes to cosmetics, the concern lies in the possibility of PFAS being absorbed through eyes, skin, and lips and seeping into the bloodstream through tear ducts and mucous membranes.
Although PFAS exposure is thought to be mainly from dietary exposure (through food and water), studies show the potential for dermal exposure through personal care products such as skin creams and cosmetics.2,8 Lipstick wearers, for example, are estimated to inadvertently absorb or ingest up to several pounds of PFAS throughout their lives.9
While we are still learning about the potential impact of PFAS exposure on human health, growing evidence links the bioaccumulation of certain PFAS to a range of severe health problems, such as compromised immune system function.10-13
What about governance?
In 2017, a nonprofit environmental organization, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, kicked off an internet campaign called Surfejs to pressure cosmetics companies to phase out PFAS from beauty products. The result? More than 1,500 consumers responded and sent emails to 8 of the largest cosmetics producers requesting the removal of PFAS from their products. Since then, H&M, Lumene, the Body Shop, Isadora, Kicks, and L’Oréal have committed to the pledge.
Another strong initiative is Who’s Minding the Store? A Report Card on Retailer Actions to Eliminate Toxic Chemicals was launched in 2013 and published its first report card in 2018. This campaign has helped drive retail giants such as Walmart, Target, Rite Aid, CVS, Walgreens, and Amazon to look for toxic chemicals in beauty products, including skin-lightening creams, hair straighteners, and relaxers.
Governments are also responding. In 2020, the European Chemicals Strategy laid out plans to ban all PFAS except for those proven to be irreplaceable and essential to society in their areas of use. The European Commission will also revise its cosmetics regulation to implement the targets of the European Chemicals Strategy and will release a legislative proposal by the end of 2022.
Reacting to the new study, in June 2021, U.S. lawmakers introduced two bills to the U.S. Senate to ban the use of these types of toxic, fluorinated chemicals in cosmetics such as makeup, moisturizer, and perfume. The No PFAS in Cosmetics Act would direct the FDA to propose rules within 270 days of enactment to ban the intentional use of PFAS as an ingredient in cosmetics, with a final rule due 90 days later.
Meanwhile, on the state level in the US, Maine has adopted the world’s first ban on products with PFAS. The law, which is set to go into effect on January 1, 2030, prohibits the sale of any products that contain intentionally added PFAS. The law does allow exemptions when the state’s Department of Environmental Protection determines a product is essential for health and safety, and alternatives are not readily available.14
A wake-up call
The PFAS chemicals in cosmetics impact not only those who wear the products on their skin, hair, nails and lips, but also those around them, who are exposed through contaminated air and water. This new June 2021 study should be a wake-up call for consumers and businesses, and cosmetics brands should be pressured to evaluate their ingredients and prioritize consumer safety. In addition, regulators should continue to push for laws that keep these harmful chemicals out of our bodies and the environment.
1. Whitehead, H.D. et al. Fluorinated Compounds in North American Cosmetics. Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett. 2021, 8(7), 538–544. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.estlett.1c00240
2. Schultes, L. et al. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and fluorine mass balance in cosmetic products from the Swedish market: implications for environmental emissions and human exposure. Environ. Sci.: Processes Impacts 2018, 20(12), 1680–1690. https://doi.org/10.1039/c8em00368h
3. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (n.d.). Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in cosmetics. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredients/and-polyfluoroalkyl-substances-pfas-cosmetics.
4. Tsai, M.-shan et al. A case-control study of perfluoroalkyl substances and the risk of breast cancer in Taiwanese women. Environment International 2020, 142, 105850. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2020.105850
5. Steenland, K.; Winquist, A. PFAS and cancer, a scoping review of the epidemiologic evidence. Environmental Research 2021, 194, 110690. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2020.110690
6. Vested, A. et al. Associations of in Utero Exposure to Perfluorinated Alkyl Acids with Human Semen Quality and Reproductive Hormones in Adult Men. Environmental Health Perspectives 2013, 121(4), 453–458. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1205118
7. Lewis, R.; Johns, L.; Meeker, J. Serum Biomarkers of Exposure to Perfluoroalkyl Substances in Relation to Serum Testosterone and Measures of Thyroid Function among Adults and Adolescents from NHANES 2011–2012. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2015, 12(6), 6098–6114. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph120606098
8. Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, Environmental Protection Agency. Risk assessment of fluorinated substances in cosmetic products: Survey of chemical substances in consumer products No 169, October 2018, accessed July 14, 2021. https://www2.mst.dk/Udgiv/publications/2018/10/978-87-93710-94-8.pdf
9. Green Science Policy Institute. Unlabeled PFAS chemicals detected in makeup, June 15, 2021. https://greensciencepolicy.org/news-events/press-releases/unlabeled-pfas-chemicals-detected-in-makeup
10. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. What are the health effects of PFAS? Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, June 24, 2020. www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/health-effects.html
11. Knutsen, H.K. et al. Risk to human health related to the presence of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid and perfluorooctanoic acid in food. EFSA Journal 2018, 16(12), 5194. https://doi.org/10.2903/j.efsa.2018.5194
12. Calafat, A.M. et al. Polyfluoroalkyl Chemicals in the U.S. Population: Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2003–2004 and Comparisons with NHANES 1999–2000. Environ Health Perspect. 2007, 115(11), 1596–1602. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.10598
13. Land, M. et al. What is the effect of phasing out long-chain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances on the concentrations of perfluoroalkyl acids and their precursors in the environment? A systematic review protocol. Environ Evid 4, 3, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1186/2047-2382-4-3
14. Hogue, C. World’s first ban on products with PFAS adopted in Maine. Chemical & Engineering News, July 19, 2021. https://cen.acs.org/environment/persistent-pollutants/Worlds-first-ban-products-PFAS/99/web/2021/07