More than half the cosmetics sold in the United States and Canada likely contain high levels of a toxic industrial compound linked to serious health conditions, including cancer and reduced birth weight, according to a new study.
Researchers at the University of Notre Dame tested more than 230 commonly used cosmetics and found that 56% of foundations and eye products, 48% of lip products and 47% of mascaras contained high levels of fluorine—an indicator of PFAS, so-called “forever chemicals” that are used in nonstick frying pans, rugs and countless other consumer products.
Some of the highest PFAS levels were found in waterproof mascara (82%) and long-lasting lipstick (62%), according to the study published recently in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Twenty-nine products with high fluorine concentrations were tested further and found to contain between four and 13 specific PFAS chemicals, the study found. Only one item listed PFAS as an ingredient on the label.
Graham Peaslee, a physics professor at Notre Dame and the principal investigator of the study, called the results shocking. Not only do the cosmetics pose an immediate risk to users, but they also create a long-term risk, he said. “PFAS is a persistent chemical. When it gets into the bloodstream, it stays there and accumulates,” Peaslee said.
Many of the products with PFAS were advertised as “wear-resistant” or “long-lasting.” Importantly, almost none of the products studied with targeted analysis had any PFAS listed on their ingredient labels. This makes it impossible for consumers to avoid PFAS-containing cosmetics by reading labels.
The man-made compounds are used in countless products, including nonstick cookware, water-repellent sports gear, cosmetics and grease-resistant food packaging, along with firefighting foams.
Public health studies on exposed populations have associated the chemicals with an array of health problems, including some cancers, weakened immunity and low birth weight. Widespread testing in recent years has found high levels of PFAS in many public water systems and military bases.
“PFAS chemicals are not necessary for makeup. Given their large potential for harm, I believe they should not be used in any personal care products,” said Arlene Blum, a co-author of the study and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, an advocacy group in Berkeley, Calif.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates cosmetics, had no immediate comment.
Dr. Frank E. Kaden, D.C.
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More information: Heather D. Whitehead et al, Fluorinated Compounds in North American Cosmetics, Environmental Science & Technology Letters (2021): https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.estlett.1c00240