Study finds ‘widespread’ use of toxic chemicals in a range of cosmetics

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Cosmetics from the United States and Canada have been found to contain high levels of per- and polyuoroalkyl substances (PFAS), associated with a range of harmful conditions.


PFAS in Cosmetics. Image Credit: University of Notre Dame

An extensive risk for human health

A new study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology Letters by researchers from the University of Notre Dame in Paris, France, found high levels of per- and polyuoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These substances are a potentially toxic class of chemicals linked to a number of serious health conditions, suggesting that many may be at risk of contamination.

Indeed, PFAS have been associated higher risk of kidney cancer, testicular cancer, hypertension, thyroid disease, low birth weight, and immunotoxicity in children. Previous findings have also found PFAS accumulation in other materials including nonstick cookware, treated fabrics, fast food wrappers, and, most recently, the personal protective equipment used by firefighters.

With growing awareness, an increasing number of materials are being tested for PFAS.

The present study tested over 200 products including concealers, foundations, eye, and eyebrow products, and various lip products, all originating from the United States and Canada.

Overall, 56 percent of foundations and eye products, 48 percent of lip products, and 47 percent of mascaras were found to contain high levels of fluorine, which is an indicator of PFAS.

"These results are particularly concerning when you consider the risk of exposure to the consumer combined with the size and scale of a multibillion-dollar industry that provides these products to millions of consumers daily," Graham Peaslee

Peaslee also added "There's the individual risk -- these are products that are applied around the eyes and mouth with the potential for absorption through the skin or at the tear duct, as well as possible inhalation or ingestion. PFAS is a persistent chemical -- when it gets into the bloodstream, it stays there and accumulates."

Further risks for consumers and the environment

By testing a range of products, the researchers were able to distinguish whether certain cosmetic types contained more or less PFAS. Findings showed high levels of fluorine in liquid lipsticks as well as waterproof mascaras and foundations often advertised as "long-lasting" and "wear-resistant." Peaslee said this is not entirely surprising, given PFAS are often used for their water resistance and film-forming properties.

More concerning is that 29 products with high fluorine concentrations were tested further and found to contain between four and 13 specific PFAS, only one of these items tested listed PFAS as an ingredient on the product label. This is particularly dangerous as companies may therefore avoid listing it as a material contained in the product.

This is a red flag. Our measurements indicate widespread use of PFAS in these products – but it's important to note that the full extent of use of fluorinated chemicals in cosmetics is hard to estimate due to lack of strict labeling requirements in both countries."

Moreover, PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” as the compounds do not naturally degrade, meaning they may end up contaminating many environmental areas, including groundwater, for decades after their release into the environment. This may occur during manufacturing, production, or waste disposal.

The PFAS can then accumulate within an environment and potentially cause contamination of organisms as well. Such processes have widespread consequences and effective treatments remain to be tested.

Peaslee's novel method of detecting PFAS in a wide variety of materials has helped reduce the use of "forever chemicals" in consumer and industrial products. However, the number of materials used in daily life is increasing constantly, and the use of harmful substances may be detrimental for human and environmental health.  

James Ducker

Written by

James Ducker

James completed his bachelor in Science studying Zoology at the University of Manchester, with his undergraduate work culminating in the study of the physiological impacts of ocean warming and hypoxia on catsharks. He then pursued a Masters in Research (MRes) in Marine Biology at the University of Plymouth focusing on the urbanization of coastlines and its consequences for biodiversity.  


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