WASHINGTON – Millions of Americans could be unknowingly exposed to the toxic “forever chemicals” called PFAS from cosmetics and other personal care products they apply to their bodies every day, according to a new study.
More than half of 231 cosmetics products tested contained PFAS, and most of them did not list any PFAS compounds on their ingredient labels, according to peer-reviewed research by a team of 16 researchers with lead author Heather Whitehead, from the University of Notre Dame. The study was published today in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters.
The researchers tested eight categories of cosmetics from U.S. and Canadian stores for total fluorine, a marker for PFAS, using particle-induced gamma-ray emission spectroscopy. PFAS listed on product labels often include “fluoro” in the ingredient name. Foundations, mascaras and liquid lipsticks had the highest levels of fluorine, the study found.
The team then chose 29 products for further testing to identify specific PFAS using liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry and gas chromatographic mass spectrometry, finding the products all had detectable levels of at least four different PFAS compounds.
PFAS are a large family of chemicals linked to harm to the immune system, such as reduced vaccine efficacy; harm to development and the reproductive system, such as reduced birth weight and impacts on fertility; increased risk of certain cancers; and effects on metabolism, such as changes in cholesterol and weight gain.
It is not yet clear how PFAS are ending up in these products.
“This should be a wake-up call for the cosmetics industry,” said David Andrews, Ph.D., a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. “Some PFAS chemicals are highly toxic at very low doses, so no PFAS should be used in personal care products. More needs to be done to ensure that PFAS are not ending up in products unintentionally, because these are products applied each and every day by millions of Americans. It is critical that we end all non-essential uses of PFAS.”
Many of these products are applied directly to the skin, the body’s largest organ, from which ingredients can be absorbed directly into the bloodstream. PFAS are often intentionally added to personal care products like dental floss, lotion, cleanser, foundation, lipstick, eyeliner, eyeshadow, water-proof mascara, nail polish and shaving cream. These compounds 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.
But the new data show most products containing PFAS did not disclose their use, and the researchers suggest the 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.
“Consumers may be misled by the claims of longer-lasting products, without knowing that they are applying PFAS-laced cosmetics to their body,” said Carla Burns, EWG senior Healthy Living Science analyst. “And what is of great concern is that most of the products tested did not disclose PFAS on their ingredient labels. This testing also showed some of the compounds detected in these cosmetics break down into other, highly toxic PFAS.”
You can use EWG’s Skin Deep database and EWG’s Healthy Living app to find products that may contain PFAS, and avoid using those in which they’re an ingredient. EWG researchers identified 13 different PFAS compounds used in more than 300 products among more than 50 brands. Teflon, or PTFE, was the most commonly found ingredient for this class of chemicals, used in more than 200 different products.
Some personal care product manufacturers have eliminated PFAS, without always making it public.
Absorption of PFAS through skin is likely not a major route of exposure, but applying cosmetics containing the chemicals around the eyes can increase the absorption risk. The type and amount of PFAS in a product might also affect the absorption hazard, but there is limited research on whether PFAS are absorbed at levels that harm human health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fluorinated chemicals contaminate the bodies of nearly all Americans, but cosmetics face little federal oversight.
For more than 80 years, Congress has neglected to increase the Food and Drug Administration’s authority over cosmetics, limiting the agency’s ability to ensure the safety of personal care products. The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act devotes only a couple of pages to cosmetics regulation, and the FDA has banned or restricted only nine ingredients in cosmetics for safety reasons.
“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,” said Scott Faber, EWG senior vice president for government affairs. “The only way to adequately protect the public from toxic chemicals like PFAS being used as ingredients in cosmetics is for Congress to step up and change the law.”
This week Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) are expected to introduce legislation to ban toxic PFAS in cosmetics. 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.
Sens. Collins and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) are also expected to reintroduce their bipartisan Personal Care Products Safety Act in the Senate this week.
Some states are not waiting for Congress or the FDA to act. In September 2020 California enacted a landmark law banning 24 of the most harmful chemicals in personal care products. In June, Maryland enacted a similar law, barring the sale and manufacture of cosmetics and personal care products with certain ingredients, including PFAS.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action. For more information please visit https://www.ewg.org/safercosmetics/ or https://www.ewg.org/pfaschemicals/.