Toxic and Unlabeled PFAS Chemicals Found in Numerous Cosmetics

These 'forever chemicals' are harmful to health and the environment.

woman applying mascara

Getty Images / Klaus Vedfelt

If you wear makeup on a regular basis, you could be absorbing toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS) through your skin, tear ducts, and mouth. This discovery is revealed in a new study published this week in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters. 

After testing 231 products across eight categories that were purchased in both Canada and the United States, researchers found that most waterproof or "long-lasting" mascaras, foundations, and lipsticks have high fluorine levels, which indicate the presence of PFAS. When they took a smaller subset of these products (23 items) and tested them further, they confirmed that all had detectable levels of at least four PFAS. 

This is worrisome because PFAS belong to a large family of notorious chemicals that are linked to compromised immune systems (including vaccine resistance), developmental and reproductive damage, increased risk of cancer, and changes in cholesterol and weight gain. Some can be highly toxic at low doses.

PFAS are called "forever chemicals" for their extreme resistance to degradation; the same chemical bonds that allow them to repel oil and water make it difficult for them to break down in the natural environment. The Environmental Working Group reported PFAS can accumulate in drinking water supplies; they can contaminate soil and be absorbed into the edible parts of plants. 

Meanwhile, many people are voluntarily applying PFAS to their bodies every day in the form of cosmetics, as this new research indicates—also known as direct exposure. What's particularly troublesome is this study found PFAS were not listed as an ingredient on any label, which "makes it impossible for consumers to avoid PFAS-containing cosmetics by reading labels." That is because the chemicals are unregulated. 

Graham Peaslee, the senior author of the study and professor of physics at the University of Notre Dame, said in a press release: "Lipstick wearers may inadvertently eat several pounds of lipstick in their lifetimes. Unlike food, chemicals in lipstick and other makeup and personal care products are almost entirely unregulated in the U.S. and Canada. As a result, millions of people are unknowingly wearing PFAS and other harmful chemicals on their faces and bodies daily."

PFAS in cosmetics table
via Green Science Policy Institute

In some cases, PFAS are added intentionally. An EWG press release explains the chemical compounds can "improve a product’s consistency, durability, texture and water resistance, and are often found in cosmetics that condition and smooth the skin, or make it appear shiny." They show up in dental floss, nail polish, lotion, cleanser, eyeshadow and eyeliner, shaving cream, foundation, mascara, lipstick, and more. 

But the new data suggest some products could be picking up PFAS inadvertently: "Detection of the substances could be due to contamination during manufacturing, leaching from storage containers, or companies using the fluorinated versions of product ingredients listed by their generic names."

Regardless of how or why they're entering cosmetics, people should not have to contend with PFAS in products they buy. "PFAS are not necessary for makeup. Given their large potential for harm, I believe they should not be used in any personal care products," said Arlene Blum, study co-author and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "It’s past time to get the entire class of PFAS out of cosmetics and keep these harmful chemicals out of our bodies."

Scott Faber, vice-president of government affairs for EWG, agreed. "The public shouldn’t have to worry that they’re putting their own health at risk by doing something as routine and mundane as applying personal care products. The only way to adequately protect the public from toxic chemicals like PFAS... is for Congress to step up and change the law."

There is mounting pressure to do so. Cosmetics safety regulations have not been updated in the U.S. since 1938. More than 10,000 chemicals are used to formulate cosmetics, but a mere 11 have ever been banned or restricted by the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for ensuring safety. Some states, such as California and Maryland, have taken matters into their own hands and restricted certain harmful chemicals.

Two senators, Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), are likely to introduce legislation this week that would restrict the use of PFAS in cosmetics. As EWG said, "The No PFAS in Cosmetics Act would direct the FDA to issue a proposed rule 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."

Until then, choose your cosmetic and skin care products carefully. The EWG's Skin Deep database is a useful reference tool to see if a product contains PFAS. Avoid waterproof and long-lasting claims, and opt for natural, safer cosmetics whenever possible.

View Article Sources
  1. Whitehead, Heather D., et al. "Fluorinated Compounds in North American Cosmetics." Environmental Science & Technology Letters, 2021, doi:10.1021/acs.estlett.1c00240

  2. Sunderland, Elsie M., et al. "A Review of the Pathways of Human Exposure to Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (Pfass) and Present Understanding of Health Effects." Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, vol. 29, no. 2, 2018, pp. 131-147., doi:10.1038/s41370-018-0094-1

  3. Temkin, Alexis. "The New Generation of ‘Forever Chemicals’ – Toxicity, Exposure, Contamination and Regulation." The Environmental Working Group, 2021.