OPINION: Teflon might be in your makeup. Here’s what you should know

A recent study found more than half of 231 cosmetic products from major cosmetics brands contained toxic forever chemicals known as PFAS.  (Bloomberg photo by Nicky Loh)

Credit: Bloomberg

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A recent study found more than half of 231 cosmetic products from major cosmetics brands contained toxic forever chemicals known as PFAS. (Bloomberg photo by Nicky Loh)

Credit: Bloomberg

More than a decade ago when I was the mom of a newborn, one of the items on my “things to worry about” list was the products that I put on my face and body. We are a family of kissers and huggers and for me, part of keeping my child safe meant doing a full audit of the ingredients in my personal care products.

I discovered on the mission to “green” my beauty routine that more than a few of my favorite products contained ingredients that are known carcinogens, neurotoxins or endocrine disrupters. So I dumped them or vowed not to wear certain ones around my infant daughter.

A recent study from researchers at the University of Notre Dame sent me running back for yet another makeup check. The culprit this time? Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, aka PFAS, more than 4,000 chemical compounds that last forever and are potentially toxic to humans.

Since the 1950s, PFAS have been used in a range of products, such as firefighting foam, coated fabrics, carpets and nonstick cookware, because they have properties that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water. In makeup, they are used to enhance wearability. Products labeled as long-wearing, sweatproof or waterproof contained particularly high levels of PFAS, according to the study published in the Journal of Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Researchers found high levels of fluorine, an indicator of PFAS, in more than half of the 231 cosmetic products tested.

“(PFAS) are associated for most people with Scotchgard and nonstick pans, but these chemicals, the entire family of PFAS, have found incredible lifestyle use — food wrappers, treatment of clothing, upholstery. Cosmetics have gotten so much attention because these are products people are applying directly to their skin,“ said David Andrews, senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group (EWG). “It is so completely unnecessary. There are other ingredients that provide the same benefits as PFAS.”

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With cosmetics, the danger lies not only in the possibility of ingesting the chemicals but also washing those PFAS-containing products down the drain and adding more of the chemicals to waterways.

Georgia figures prominently in the fight against PFAS, at least as far as water contamination. Two 2019 lawsuits in Georgia allege that carpet manufacturers in North Georgia have polluted waterways and sources of drinking water with PFAS for years.

In June, a Georgia federal judge implied some of the legal liability for PFAS — which has traditionally fallen on chemical manufacturers like DuPont and 3M — should fall to companies that use the chemical in consumer products, according to a recent article in the National Law Review. That would mean carpet makers in Dalton, paper makers in Maine and maybe even cosmetics companies could find themselves tied up in costly civil litigations in the future.

The average woman uses 12 personal care products in a single day. When you add that to PFAS absorbed from all the other sources in our homes, including the water we drink, these non-degrading chemicals accumulate in our bodies and can put our health at risk.

Increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, increased risk of high blood pressure or preeclampsia in pregnant women, small decreases in infant birth weights and increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer are just a few of the health risks that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked to the chemicals. The agency recently issued a statement indicating evidence that PFAS can reduce antibody response to vaccines such as the COVID-19 vaccine.

In the cosmetics study, 52% of the 231 products across eight categories tested contained fluorine. High levels were found in 63% of foundations, 58% of eye products, 55% of lip products and 47% of mascaras. Particularly high fluorine levels were found in products advertised as “wear-resistant” or “long-lasting,” including waterproof mascara, liquid lipstick and foundations. Only 8% of the products containing fluorine had PFAS as a labeled ingredient, suggesting that some manufacturers list PFAS-treated chemicals by the general name.

Health concerns about the chemicals have been on the radar of the Environmental Protection Agency for more than 20 years, but the agency has yet to establish limits. “The EPA has failed to comprehensively regulate these chemicals,” said Melanie Benesh, legislative attorney for EWG. “There is not a consumer product that is less regulated than cosmetics.”

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Legislators in the U.S. House have passed a bill that would require the EPA to develop standards for PFAS in drinking water. In the Senate, a bipartisan bill to ban PFAS in cosmetics was introduced by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). Collins and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also introduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act, an effort to increase the Food and Drug Administration’s oversight of personal care products.

The FDA does not review products for safety, does not require registration of product ingredients and has no authority to recall products, said Benesh. Just as states have begun to set legal limits for PFAS in drinking water in absence of federal regulations, some states, including California and Maryland, are also taking steps to ban PFAS from cosmetics. And some cosmetics companies have already banned or begun to phase out PFAS in their products.

“Beautycounter bans PFAS ingredients from our formulations, but our work doesn’t stop there,” said Lindsay Dahl, Beautycounter’s senior vice president of Social Mission. “Beauty brands need to work hard with supply chain partners to eliminate fluorinated compounds — which are hard to avoid all together — from manufacturing equipment, undisclosed treatments on pigments and packaging.”

Dahl said the company helped pass the California Toxic Free Cosmetics Act, which bans common PFAS chemicals from beauty products, and said it is vital for other beauty brands to pressure elected officials to pass laws that clean up the supply chain.

L’Oréal is among the larger beauty companies that have pledged to phase out PFAS over the next few years while some stores, including Whole Foods, Sephora’s Clean at Sephora products and Ulta’s Conscious Beauty products, have banned PFAS.

Until regulations catch up to industry advances with the proper reforms to increase transparency and improve safety, the burden is on consumers to take action by demanding change and supporting companies that have already eliminated PFAS from their products.

Andrews said consumers should watch for any ingredients with “fluoro” in the name or PTFE, the most commonly used terms that include PFAS.

They can also use EWG’s Skin Deep Database (ewg.org/skindeep/) and the Clearya app, to check specific products for toxic ingredients.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com