Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of long-lasting synthetic chemicals widely used in consumer products, including personal care items such as lotions, lipstick, mascara, and more. Although PFAS have demonstrated negative effects on human health, including liver and developmental problems, the compound is commonly used in cosmetic products to increase shine, longevity, and texture. For example, a recent study found PFAS contamination in 52% of the 231 cosmetics tested despite only 8% reporting PFAS as an ingredient on the label.
And it isn’t just one specific PFAS being used: a review by the Environmental Working Group of their Skin Deep database found 13 different PFAS compounds in over 300 products from more than 50 popular brands. Currently, an important area of toxicology research is determining how much of these substances are absorbed by the skin when the products are applied. The long-lasting nature of PFAS combined with daily use of cosmetics means that even minute amounts absorbed through the skin can accumulate in our bloodstream over time. Moreover, the waste from these products – toothpaste, hair products, and shaving cream washed down the drain, for example – is contaminating landfills, topsoil, and our water (see this blog post for further information on how PFAS pollution can impact the environment).
The cosmetic industry is largely unregulated in the United States, relying on non-enforceable measures like the Voluntary Cosmetic Registration Program and corporate self-regulation. The only federal legislation controlling substances in cosmetics is the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act from 1938, which does not provide the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) financial resources or significant regulatory authority. Under this law, the FDA can evaluate safety of cosmetic products but lacks the ability to enforce safety regulations based on its findings. Cosmetic companies do not have to register with the FDA, do not have to provide ingredient statements or safety records, and do not have to report adverse effects of their products; instead, companies rely on the industry-funded Cosmetic Ingredient Safety expert panel to assess whether products are safe for consumer use. To date, the FDA has only restricted 11 dangerous compounds used in cosmetics, a list which does not include PFAS. A bill called S.1113, the Personal Care Products Safety Act, was introduced to the Senate in 2017 as an amendment to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and would require cosmetic companies to register with and report to the FDA, but the bill was never voted upon. On a state level, California remains the only state that requires cosmetic companies to register with the government. More recently, H.R.2467 was passed by the House of Representatives and would establish requirements limiting the use and disposal of PFAS in all products, cosmetics included.
Though the specific effects of PFAS in cosmetics on human health are still being investigated, these substances have demonstrated negative impacts and must be treated with caution. As consumers, here are some of the steps we can take:
Avoid cosmetics with “perfluoro” on the ingredient label to limit exposure to PFAS
Avoid products that are advertised as long-lasting or waterproof, as these typically contain greater amounts of PFAS
Buy products that are refillable and/or reusable to reduce waste
Support bills such as H.R.2467 that regulate the use of harmful compounds
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, June 24). Potential health effects of Pfas Chemicals. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved May 29, 2022, from https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/health-effects/index.html
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