Toxic Chemicals In Cosmetics Under The Spotlight

By Ben Hamill - June 26 2021

Toxic Chemicals In Cosmetics Under The Spotlight

Those who use waterproof and long-lasting cosmetic products could be exposing themselves to toxic chemicals, dubbed “forever chemicals” by scientists. New research from the US, Canada and Switzerland has revealed that traces of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have already been detected in human blood samples, reigniting concerns about the health and environmental hazards they pose.

The research, funded in part by Environment and Climate Change Canada, discovered that while not all cosmetics contain PFAS, there are many that do. The name PFAS encompasses over 9000 synthetic chemicals commonly used in lubricants, non-stick coatings like Teflon, and stain repellents. They contain fluorine bonded to carbon, resulting in a “highly persistent” toxin, said University of Toronto Professor Miriam Diamond, who co-authored the research.

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Toxic Ingredients

PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because they take decades to break down, lingering in both the human body and the environment. They can increase the risk of cancer, damage fertility and alter the metabolism of people and animals that come into contact with them. When it comes to cosmetic products such as lipstick and mascara, scientists are concerned that licking the cosmetics, or absorption through the skin and tear ducts could mean increased exposure to toxic PFAS.

How Widespread Are Forever Chemicals?

Despite limited research on PFAS, three groups that are better understood (PFOS, PFOA and LC-PFCAs) are already banned in Canada due to the environmental damage they cause. The most recent study suggests that other PFAS being used in place of prohibited ones are just has harmful, prompting government to consider regulation for all PFAS.

While research in Europe and Asia found many cosmetics with PFAS listed in their ingredients, new evidence suggests that many products in the US and Canada also contain the toxins. In many of these cases, however, they aren’t on the label. Out of 231 products reviewed, scientists found that 52% contained exceptionally high levels of fluorine, signaling the presence of PFAS. Products like mascara, eyeliners, foundations, and liquid lipsticks – described as waterproof, wear-resistant, or long-lasted – contained the highest levels.

Why So Many?

Companies whose products contain PFAS sometimes don’t even realize that they’re there. They can be used to treat bulking agents like talc or mica, while ingredients like methicone and acrylate can sometimes contain the chemicals. 2016 research by Harvard scientist Xindi Hu even showed the presence of PFAS in drinking water. It remains tricky for consumers to purchase PFAS-free products while there are no regulations in place.