Potentially Toxic Chemicals Called PFAS are Common in Cosmetics, Study Finds

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 consumer education.

Some types of makeup tested higher for levels of PFAS than others. Lab tests found high levels of fluorine in 82 percent 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.

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.

New Proposed Legislation Would Ban PFAS in the U.S.

Consumers who want to avoid PFAS in their cosmetics may not be able to pull this off, Peaslee says. That’s because the study didn’t identify any major makeup brands that were entirely free of PFAS.

As things stand right now, labels can be deceiving, says Xindi Hu, ScD, an environmental health researcher at Mathematica.

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 labeled 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 labeling 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.

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