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With prices rising, consumers are increasingly on the lookout for products that deliver quality and value. So the discovery of a sunscreen that glides over the skin like silk, a lip gloss that stays lustrous, or a mascara that withstands a downpour without streaking feels like a cause for celebration. But – things aren’t always as they seem. Recent research reveals that these seemingly harmless products can contain toxic chemicals known as PFAS.
PFAS – the very same substances that make some cosmetics long-lasting, silky-feeling, and water-resistant – have been linked with cancer, birth defects, and environmental harm. In a recent peer-reviewed study, scientists revealed the shocking prevalence of PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” in cosmetics and personal care products. Let’s take a closer look.
52 percent of tested cosmetics contained toxic chemicals
In the first-ever large PFAS screening of cosmetics in the U.S. and Canada, scientists analyzed 231 cosmetics and personal care items from dozens of different manufacturers, including L’Oreal, Ulta, Mac, Cover Girl, Clinique, Estee Lauder, and Maybelline. Items sampled included bronzers, highlighters, concealers, foundations, shaving creams, sunscreens, and moisturizers. In their bombshell findings, which were published in Environmental Science and Technology, the team reported that over half of the tested products had high concentrations of organic fluorine, a reliable indicator of the presence of PFAS. (A stunning 55 percent of the lip glosses, 63 percent of the liquid and cream foundations, and 82 percent of the waterproof mascara had high concentrations of fluorine).
Some products contained prohibited PFAS at levels an outrageous one thousand times higher than the “incidental level” of one microgram per gram. Products that were checked for individual PFAS were found to contain between 4 and 13 different types of toxic chemicals, including PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, a banned compound that is believed to be among the most toxic of PFAS).
Claiming that they didn’t want to “pick on” specific companies, the scientists didn’t reveal which brands contained the PFAS. They explained that the complexity of the supply chain might make it difficult for a company to know if toxic chemicals had been added in the first place.
Toxic chemicals like PFAS are a major cause of environmental contamination
There are about 4,000 PFAS in all, with 170 types currently added to cosmetics. Also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS may be used to make products waterproof, more long-lasting, or easier to spread on the skin. Incidentally, these toxic chemicals are also found extensively in food packaging, fabrics, carpet, and upholstery.
While PFAS are being phased out of products – a process that began in the early 2000s – they are still widely detected in both humans and the environment (where they are considered a major source of contamination.) In fact, PFAS have been found worldwide and have even turned up in locations as remote as Antarctica. After being rinsed from the skin and washed down the drain, PFAS make their way into the environment, where they resist degradation and eventually enter wastewater treatment plants and groundwater.
PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” are linked to cancer, birth defects, and more
In a 2018 summary from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, scientists reported that exposure to PFAs could cause myriad adverse effects. Animal studies have linked PFAS to thyroid disease and cancer, as well as liver, immune, reproductive, and developmental effects. In addition, PFAS can cross the placenta, thereby contributing to fetal exposure. Human studies have shown that they can cause preterm births, lower birth weights, and developmentary delays. PFOA, in particular, has been linked to adverse pregnancy and birth outcomes.
Studies have shown that regular use of cosmetic and personal care products is linked to PFAS levels in the body. Exposure to PFAS in cosmetics can occur through the skin, tear ducts, and even through accidental ingestion. (Here’s a nauseating little factoid: the researchers noted that people who wear lipstick can accidentally consume several pounds over the course of a lifetime!)
Most significantly, exposure to PFAS occur through exposure to contaminated foods and drinking water.
Labels can offer clues to the presence of PFAS
To their credit, cosmetics retailers Sephora and Ulta have banned PFAS in cosmetics. But many companies have not. Unbelievably, there is currently no law that compels manufacturers to list PFAS on labels. (You can, however, look for words such as “wear-resistant,” “waterproof,” and “long-lasting,” which may tip you off to their presence). Advocates are calling for this to change, saying that clear labeling would at least allow people to make informed choices.
In fact, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) believes that banning PFAS in cosmetics is not enough. The EWG wants these toxic chemicals banned from other non-essential products as well. In addition, the organization urges the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce industrial discharges of PFAS into the environment and has requested that water utilities remove them from drinking water.
California is planning to eliminate any PFAS ingredients used in cosmetics and clothing by 2025. In January, Maine’s ban against all PFAS went into effect. (Hopefully, it’s not too late to reverse the “toxic stew” of PFAS that can affect our environment for centuries).
The presence of PFAS represents the “ugly underside” of an industry that sells products designed to make people feel more attractive. Clearly, there’s nothing beautiful about this issue.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purpose.