Is There Teflon in Your Cosmetics?

A brunette woman applies mascara to her eyes in the mirror.

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A new report finds the nonstick chemical and a dozen other PFAS chemicals in 200 products from 28 brands.

When nonstick pans were unleashed upon the masses in 1961, kitchen clean-up got a bit easier. Marketed as “The Happy Pan,” the slippery nature of pan coated in polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) – also known as Teflon – must have seemed like a small miracle. PTFE is one of thousands of fluorinated chemicals known as PFASs or PFCs

But like so many of those lab-made “miracles” meant to make our lives easier, PTFE came with a rather unpleasant side. As David Andrews, Senior Scientist and Carla Burns, Research Analyst for Environmental Working Group (EWG) write:

DuPont manufactured PTFE, or Teflon, for decades. Its production relied on another PFC known as PFOA. PFOA and its close chemical cousin PFOS, formerly an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard, were phased out under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency after revelations that secret internal company studies showed they caused cancer and birth defects in lab animals, built up in people’s bodies and did not break down in the environment.

Oops. In the meantime, Teflon and other PFASs have polluted the environment and its inhabitants worldwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these fluorinated chemicals can be found in the bodies of nearly all Americans. And by now, many people know about the concerns over these chemicals and make an effort to avoid them.

But as it turns out, it hasn’t been so easy for manufacturers to give them up as well.

In a new report, EWG scientists went through their Skin Deep database of nearly 75,000 cosmetics and personal care products to see which ones contained Teflon or other PFASs. What did they find? Teflon in 66 different products from 15 brands, and that’s not all. In total they identified 13 different PFAS chemicals in nearly 200 products from 28 brands.

Teflon was found in foundation, sunscreen/moisturizer, eyeshadow, bronzer/highlighter, facial powder, sunscreen/makeup, mascara, anti-aging, moisturizer, around-eye cream, blush, shaving cream (men's), facial moisturizer/treatment, brow liner, and other eye makeup.

How is that even possible? Andrews and Burns explain:

The presence of PFASs and many other potentially harmful chemicals in the products we put on our bodies is a deeply concerning consequence of the antiquated federal regulations governing the safety of cosmetics and personal care products. Those regulations are based on legislation passed in the 1930s, before most of the synthetic chemicals in use today were even invented.

It’s bad enough that these chemicals are in our tap water; a fact made famous when a study of nearly 70,000 people near a Teflon plant in West Virginia linked PFOA in tap water to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol and other health problems.

And as EWG points out, “further research has linked PFOA to disruption of the hormone system, and harm to reproduction and development. Even extremely low levels of exposure have been linked to serious health risks, especially for children, and reduced effectiveness of vaccines and low birth weight.”

So that these chemicals have been found in cosmetics and personal care products is disturbing. And even if absorption of these chemicals through skin is not expected to be a significant route of exposure, notes the report, when used on or around the eyes, absorption can increase, posing a greater hazard. Also, given the number of products many people use in the course of a day, it all feels unsettling.

In the end, EWG states: "Not enough is known about the health impacts of these chemicals. Until more is known, EWG strongly urges people to avoid all products with PFAS, including cosmetics and personal care products."

So it's up to the consumers to ensure that out cosmetics are made with clean ingredients. Be cautious with cosmetic ingredients that have “fluoro” in the name; and you can check the Skin Deep database to see if products you use might contain PFASs.

For starters here are the products that contain Teflon; you can read the report and see other products at EWG.