U.S. legislators recently introduced a bill to ban PFAS in the United States. Lab tests suggest that more than half of cosmetics sold in the United States and Canada may contain high levels of the chemical.
A wide range of cosmetics available in the United States and Canada contains high levels of potentially toxic chemicals, raising questions about companies’ transparency and federal regulation, as well as the importance of consumer education.
In a study, which was published in June 2021 in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, scientists tested 231 cosmetic products — including concealers, eye makeup, foundations, lip colour, and mascara — for fluorine, a marker of polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Overall, 52 per cent of these products had high levels of fluorine, suggesting that the cosmetics likely contain high levels of PFAS. PFAS have been linked to many health problems including high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, infertility, and certain cancers.
Some types of makeup tested higher for levels of PFAS than others. Lab tests found high levels of fluorine in 82 per cent of waterproof mascaras, 63 percent of foundations, and 62 percent of liquid lipsticks.
The study results also suggest that there may be no way for consumers to know if they risk exposure. Overall, only 8 percent of the cosmetics identified as containing PFAS in lab tests had ingredients containing these chemicals listed as ingredients on the label.
“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,” says senior study author Graham Peaslee, PhD, a professor of physics at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
People who unwittingly apply PFAS to their face when they wear makeup have the potential for these chemicals to be absorbed through the skin or tear ducts, or through inhalation or ingestion, depending on how products are applied, Dr. Peaslee says.
“PFAS is a persistent chemical — when it gets into the bloodstream, it stays there and accumulates,” Peaslee adds. “There’s also the additional risk of environmental contamination associated with the manufacture and disposal of these products, which could affect many more people.”
Potential Health Risks of PFAS Chemicals
PFAS are human-made chemicals that have been found in a wide range of consumer products for decades, including nonstick cookware, fire-resistant fabrics, and fast-food wrappers. In addition to consumer products, people can be exposed to PFAS from the air, indoor dust, and food and water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Like the latest study, previous research on the possible health risks of PFAS has not been able to definitely prove that the chemicals directly cause specific medical issues. Yet prior studies do suggest that exposure to high levels of certain PFAS can lead to a range of health problems, according to the CDC. These include:
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Preeclampsia (elevated blood pressure during pregnancy)
- Low birth weight
- Decreased vaccine response in children
- Certain cancers
Some research also suggests exposure to PFAS may be associated with an increased risk of chronic health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and asthma.
One study, published in February 2019 in The Lancet Planetary Health, for example, linked prenatal PFAS exposure to impaired lung function in children. Another study, published in Diabetes Care in July 2019, linked PFAS exposure to an elevated risk of diabetes. And a study published in May 2020 in Toxicological and Environmental Chemistry tied PFAS exposure to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and certain liver diseases.
How to Limit PFAS Exposure From Cosmetics
Going without makeup is the only definite way to avoid exposure to PFAS in cosmetics, but consumers can try to reduce their risk by limiting how much makeup they use and how often they use it, Hu says. Makeup-free days might help.
“They can also consider removing the makeup soon after they get home,” Hu suggests. “And for lipsticks, it is a good idea to wipe it off before people drink or eat to help reduce exposure through ingestion.”
The study results also suggest that consumers should try to avoid products labelled as waterproof, long-lasting, or wear-resistant, Peaslee says.
Consumers can also turn to EWG’s Healthy Living, an app released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a research and advocacy group, to provide consumers with safety information about cosmetics, says Leonardo Trasande, MD, director of the Center for the Investigation of Environmental Hazards at New York University in New York City.
This free app is also available online. It uses an ingredient database built from product labelling information as well as independent toxicology and regulatory reports to create hazard scores (0–10), with lower scores indicating safer products with fewer ingredients linked to health problems. Consumers can scan product barcodes or type in the names of brands or specific products to get safety ratings.