What are PFAS chemicals and why are they in makeup?

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When toxicologist Linda Birnbaum’s daughter recently visited, she asked to stop by a store to buy eye makeup. But when the vendor began advertising the benefits of a certain waterproof mascara, Birnbaum advised her daughter to stay away.

Why? Researchers recently found that waterproof, sweat-resistant and long-wearing cosmetics, so popular this time of year, contain higher levels of a potentially toxic class of thousands of chemicals called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The study was led by scientists from the University of Notre Dame and published in the Journal of Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

PFAS are not only used in cosmetics; they can be found in products such as non-stick cookware, rainwear, rugs, and fast food containers. “You’re not just exposed in one place or source, they’re everywhere,” said Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program.

Additionally, these chemicals do not degrade naturally and are known to accumulate in the body, soil and water, making them a potential health hazard for consumers and the environment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have linked the chemicals to severe kidney, liver, immunological, developmental and reproductive problems. And, recently, he said there is evidence that PFASs affect the antibody response to vaccines such as those for covid-19.

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Lawmakers are starting to take action. In recent weeks, the House has 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 aiming to ban PFAS in cosmetics was presented in June by Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn).

And in July, Maine became the first state to enact a law, scheduled to go into effect in 2030, that would prohibit the intentional addition of all PFAS to any product sold there. California and Maryland are also gradually introducing bans on PFAS in cosmetics.

How much are these chemicals used in cosmetics?

The personal care industry commonly uses more than a dozen PFASs. 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 other products, acknowledges the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC).

High levels of fluoride, an indicator of PFAS use, were found in 52% of 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 makeup foundations, 55 percent of lip products, and 47 percent of mascaras tested contained high levels of fluoride.

Separately, the Environmental Working Group in June examined its Skin Deep database of ingredients listed in cosmetics and found 13 different PFAS compounds used in over 300 products across more than 50 brands. Teflon or (PTFE), popular in non-stick pans, has been found in 200 different products.

The PCPC stated that not all fluorinated compounds have the same chemical composition and “safety profile” and some trace results may be due to contamination.

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The lead author of the University of Notre Dame study, physics professor Graham Peaslee, agrees that some of the traces found in the products may be due to contamination and that manufacturers may not be aware of it. Others may come from other listed ingredients purchased from manufacturers that have been treated with PFAS, such as synthetic mica or fluorinated dimethicone.

Only 8 percent of the 231 cosmetics screened for total fluoride had PFASs listed as ingredients, and only 3.5 percent of the 29 that contained four to 13 different PFASs in their formulation listed one on the product label.

However, the PCPC insists that because the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates cosmetics, requires that they be “proven 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 problems, not all of them do,” says cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski. “The cosmetic industry is not interested in poisoning people. . . Those that are added on purpose have been tested and determined to be safe by the cosmetic ingredients review committee. “

That advice, the industry-funded expert group on the safety of cosmetic ingredients, which includes an independent dermatologist, toxicologist, consumer representative, and scientists employed in the industry, largely determines the safety of ingredients for cosmetics.

The FDA does not require pre-market safety testing or registration of product ingredients. It relies on cosmetic 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 “mislabeled” or “adulterated”.

How worried should we be?

It is difficult to say what kind of risk PFAS in cosmetics represents, given the lack of substantial research done on how much humans absorb through the skin or tear ducts or ingest through lipstick.

“It is still an emerging organism when it comes to toxicology and health risks,” said Bruce Brod, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania. “I don’t think there is evidence for making a generic recommendation that consumers should 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 minimal, Birnbaum said, exposure is frequent because many consumers use these products on a daily basis. And people are exposed to PFAS beyond cosmetic use.

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The threat of PFAS in cosmetics and personal care products, however, is not limited to the individual who uses them, Peaslee said, because shaving cream, toothpaste and hair products are washed down the drain and disposed of in landfills by the millions. of customers around the globe. Collins presented the Senate bill after wells and topsoil in his 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 out PFAS from its products in 2018, plans to complete that process in two years, according to an emailed statement from company spokesperson Polina Huard.

And while industry experts believe the Senate bill seeking to ban PFAS in cosmetics faces a tough road to go in Congress, Peaslee believes the growing mix of state legislation, additional peer-reviewed research, and awareness of consumers will push cosmetics manufacturers to seek alternatives and investigate their supply chains.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Working Group suggests that consumers seeking to reduce their exposure to PFAS from personal care products avoid ingredients containing “perfluoro” on labels. You should also be wary of cosmetic products that pride themselves on having long-lasting, water-resistant, waterproof, or sweat-resistant 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’re exposed to.

Ultimately, however, Birnbaum said we must “turn off the tap” for this class of chemicals that are already so present in our environment. “Given the persistence of these chemicals, they should only be used where absolutely essential,” he said. “And it’s not a waterproof lipstick or mascara.”

Melinda Fulmer writes about wellness, business and travel and can be found on Twitter and Instagram @melindafulmer.

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