When toxicologist Linda Birnbaum’s daughter was visiting recently, she asked to stop at a store to buy eye makeup. But when the salesperson began touting the benefits of a certain waterproof mascara, Birnbaum advised her daughter to steer clear.
Why? Researchers recently found that waterproof, sweatproof and long-wearing cosmetics — so popular at this time of year — contain higher levels of a potentially toxic class of thousands of chemicals called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances or (PFAS). The study was led by scientists at the University of Notre Dame and published in the Journal of Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
PFAS aren’t used only in cosmetics; they can be found in products such as nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing, carpet and fast-food containers. “You are not just exposed in one place or one source — they are everywhere,” said Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program.
What’s more, these chemicals don’t naturally degrade and are known to accumulate in the body as well as in our soil and water, making them a potential risk to consumer health and the environment.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked the chemicals to serious kidney, liver, immunological, developmental and reproductive issues. And, recently, it said that there is evidence that PFAS affect the antibody response to vaccines such as those for COVID-19.
Legislators are starting to take action. In recent weeks, the House passed the PFAS Action Act, which would require the Environmental Protection Agency to establish national drinking water standards for these so-called “forever chemicals.” A bipartisan Senate bill seeking to ban PFAS in cosmetics was introduced in June by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn).
And in July, Maine became the first state to enact a law, scheduled to take effect in 2030, that would ban all PFAS from being intentionally added to any product sold there. California and Maryland also are phasing in bans on PFAS in cosmetics.
The personal-care industry commonly uses more than a dozen PFAS. They are added to make lotions, cosmetics and hair products more water-resistant, durable and spreadable. And small amounts not listed on ingredient labels can be found in many more products, acknowledges the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC).
High levels of fluorine, an indicator of PFAS use, were found in 52 percent of the 231 cosmetics tested by the group of scientists led by the University of Notre Dame, who published their findings in the Journal of Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
According to that study, 63 percent of the makeup foundations, 55 percent of the lip products and 47 percent of the mascaras tested contained high levels of fluorine.
Separately, the Environmental Working Group in June reviewed its Skin Deep database of listed ingredients in cosmetics and found 13 different PFAS compounds used in more than 300 products among more than 50 brands. Teflon or (PTFE), popular in nonstick pans, was found in 200 different products.
The PCPC said that not all fluorinated compounds have the same chemical makeup and “safety profile,” and some findings of trace amounts may be due to contamination.
The University of Notre Dame study’s lead author, physics professor Graham Peaslee, agrees that some of the trace amounts found in products may be due to contamination, and manufacturers may not have known about it. Others may stem from other listed ingredients bought by manufacturers that were treated with PFAS, such as synthetic mica or fluorinated dimethicone.
Only 8 percent of the 231 cosmetics screened for total fluorine had any PFAS listed as ingredients, and only 3.5 percent of the 29 that were found to contain between four and 13 different PFAS in their formulation listed any on the product label.
Still, the PCPC insists that because the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates cosmetics, requires them to be “shown to be safe for consumers before they are marketed,” consumers should have confidence in the products currently on the market.
“While some perfluorinated compounds have some health concerns, not all of them do,” says cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski. “The cosmetics industry isn’t interested in poisoning people ... Those that are added on purpose have been tested and determined to be safe by the cosmetics ingredients review board.”
That board, the industry-funded Expert Panel for Cosmetic Ingredient Safety, which includes an independent dermatologist, toxicologist, a consumer representative and industry-employed scientists, largely determines the safety of ingredients for cosmetics.
The FDA does not require premarket safety testing or registration of product ingredients. It relies on cosmetics companies to ensure that their products are safe. It does not have the power to authorize recalls and will inspect a facility if it receives information that a product is “misbranded” or “adulterated.”
It’s difficult to say what kind of risk is posed by PFAS in cosmetics, given the lack of substantial research done on how much humans are absorbing through their skin or tear ducts, or ingesting through lipstick.
“It’s still an emerging body as far as the toxicology and risks to health,” said Bruce Brod, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania. “I don’t think the evidence exists to make a broad-brush recommendation for consumers to avoid [all] of them.” However, Brod said he hopes this research will prompt the FDA to “learn more about these substances and their toxicology.”
But even if this absorption is minute, Birnbaum said, that exposure is frequent because many consumers use these products daily. And people are exposed to PFAS beyond cosmetic usage.
The threat from PFAS in cosmetics and personal-care products, however, isn’t limited to the individual using them, Peaslee said, because shaving cream, toothpaste and hair products are washed down the drain and disposed of in landfills by millions of customers around the globe. Collins introduced the Senate bill after wells and topsoil in her home state of Maine were found to be contaminated with high levels of PFAS from sludge used as fertilizer.
Industry change, however, is already on the horizon. L’Oréal, which began phasing PFAS out of its products in 2018, expects to complete that process in two years, according to an emailed statement by company spokesman Polina Huard.
And while industry experts believe the Senate bill seeking to ban PFAS in cosmetics faces a tough road ahead in Congress, Peaslee thinks the mix of growing state legislation, additional peer-reviewed research and consumer awareness will pressure cosmetics makers to look for alternatives and investigate their supply chain.
In the meantime, the Environmental Working Group suggests that consumers looking to cut down on their exposure to PFAS from personal-care products avoid ingredients containing “perfluoro” on labels. You should also beware of cosmetics products that boast about having long-wearing, water-resistant, waterproof or sweatproof formulas, which are more likely to contain PFAS.
While this won’t allow you to avoid these ingredients entirely, Peaslee said, it will reduce the levels you are exposed to.
Ultimately, however, Birnbaum said we need to “turn off the tap” for this class of chemicals that is already so present in our environment. “Given the persistence of these chemicals, they should only be used where absolutely essential,” she said. “And that’s not waterproof lipstick or mascara.”