Use of toxic PFAS chemicals in cosmetics is ‘widespread’: study says

Attempts to achieve surface-level beauty could produce ramifications that are far more than skin deep, experts warn.

More than half of the popular cosmetics sold in the United States and Canada likely contain high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a potentially toxic class of chemicals linked to cancer and other serious health conditions, according to an alarming new study released Tuesday by the University of Notre Dame.

Scientists tested 200-plus beauty products — including foundations, concealers, eyeshadows and eyebrow products as well as various lip products. Researchers found that 56 percent of foundations and eye products, 48 percent of lip products and 47 percent of mascaras tested were found to contain high levels of fluorine, which is an indicator of PFAS use in the product, according to the study published Tuesday in the journal of Environmental Science and Technology Letters.

“These results are particularly concerning when you consider the risk of exposure to the consumer combined with the size and scale of a multibillion-dollar industry that provides these products to millions of consumers daily,” said lead researcher Graham Peaslee, professor of physics at Notre Dame. “There’s the individual risk — these are products that are applied around the eyes and mouth with the potential for absorption through the skin or at the tear duct, as well as possible inhalation or ingestion.”

‘This is a red flag. Our measurements indicate widespread use of PFAS in these products’

Graham Peaslee, professor of physics at Notre Dame.

PFAs are a wide-ranging class of chemicals that repel water, oil or heat and they are used in food packaging, nonstick cookware, fire extinguishers, food wrappers, waterproof fabrics, paints, waxes, dental floss and more.

Peaslee warns that “PFAS is a persistent chemical — when it gets into the bloodstream, it stays there and accumulates. There’s also the additional risk of environmental contamination associated with the manufacture and disposal of these products, which could affect many more people.”

In 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a nationwide action plan to study PFAS and devise limits on two such chemicals found in drinking water, following several studies linking them to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, hypertension, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, low birth weight and immunotoxicity in children.

Also found in the personal protective equipment used by firefighters, PFAS are dubbed “forever chemicals,” because their compounds don’t naturally degrade — meaning they end up contaminating groundwater for decades after being released into the environment. Use of PFAS in foam fire suppressants also has been linked to contaminated drinking water systems, prompting the Department of Defense to switch to environmentally safer alternatives.

Peaslee’s research team tested products purchased at retail outlets in the US as well as products purchased online in Canada. The study found high levels of fluorine in liquid lipsticks, waterproof mascaras and foundations often advertised as “long-lasting” and “wear-resistant.” Peaslee said this not really surprising, given that PFAS are often used for their “water resistance and film-forming properties.”

What he found more concerning: 29 products with high fluorine concentrations were tested further and found to contain between four and 13 specific PFAS, only one of these items tested listed PFAS as an ingredient on the product label.

“This is a red flag,” Peaslee said. “Our measurements indicate widespread use of PFAS in these products — but it’s important to note that the full extent of use of fluorinated chemicals in cosmetics is hard to estimate due to lack of strict labeling requirements in both countries.”

Peaslee’s method of detecting PFAS in a wide variety of materials has previously helped reduce the use of “forever chemicals” in both consumer and industrial products.

Following a study from his lab in 2017, fast food chains that discovered their wrappers contained PFAS switched to alternative options. Peaslee continues to receive samples of firefighter turnout gear from fire departments around the world to test for PFAS, and his research has spurred conversations within the firefighter community to eliminate use of “forever chemicals” in various articles of personal protective equipment.

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