Many cosmetics contain hidden, potentially dangerous ‘forever chemicals’

Scientists found signs of long-lasting PFAS compounds in about half of tested makeup products

several makeup items - lipstick, a compact, blush brush, mascara - sit on a cream-colored background

A new investigation reveals how widespread potentially harmful PFAS chemicals are in U.S. and Canadian makeup products.

Amy Shamblen/Unsplash.com

A new chemical analysis has revealed an ugly truth about beauty products: Many may contain highly persistent, potentially harmful “forever chemicals” called PFAS.

PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, include thousands of chemicals that are so sturdy they can linger in the body for years and the environment for centuries. The health effects of only a few PFAS are well known, but those compounds have been linked to high cholesterol, thyroid diseases and other problems.

“There is no known good PFAS,” says chemist and physicist Graham Peaslee of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

In the first large screening of cosmetics for PFAS in the United States and Canada, Peaslee and colleagues found that 52 percent of over 200 tested products had high fluorine concentrations, suggesting the presence of PFAS, the researchers report online June 15 in Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

The potential health risks of PFAS in makeup are not yet clear, Peaslee says. But besides people ingesting or absorbing PFAS when wearing makeup, cosmetics washed down the drain could get into drinking water (SN: 11/25/18).

Peaslee’s team measured the amount of fluorine, a key component of PFAS, in 231 cosmetics. Sixty-three percent of foundations, 55 percent of lip products and 82 percent of waterproof mascara contained high levels of fluorine — at least 0.384 micrograms of fluorine per square centimeter of product spread on a piece of paper. Long-lasting or waterproof products were especially likely to contain lots of fluorine. That makes sense, since PFAS are water-resistant.

Twenty-nine products further tested for specific PFAS all contained at least four of these chemicals, but only one product listed PFAS among its ingredients. In addition to posing their own potential health risks, these compounds can break down in the body into other PFAS, such as perfluorooctanoic acid, which has been linked to cancers and low birth weights (SN: 6/4/19).

Maria Temming

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant editor at Science News for Students. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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