More than half the cosmetics sold in the United States and Canada likely contain high levels of a toxic industrial compound linked to serious health conditions, including cancer and reduced birth weight, according to a new study.
University of Notre Dame researchers tested more than 230 commonly used cosmetics and found that 56% of foundations and eye products, 48% of lip products and 47% of mascaras contained high levels of fluorine — an indicator of PFAS, so-called “forever chemicals” that are used in nonstick frying pans, rugs and countless other consumer products.
Some of the highest PFAS levels were found in waterproof mascara (82%) and long-lasting lipstick (62%), according to the study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
Twenty-nine products with high fluorine concentrations were tested further and found to contain between four and 13 specific PFAS chemicals, the study found.
Only one item listed PFAS as an ingredient on the label.
The study results were announced as a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill to ban the use of PFAS — perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — in cosmetics and other beauty products.
The move to ban PFAS comes as Congress considers wide-ranging legislation to set a national drinking water standard for certain PFAS chemicals and clean up contaminated sites across the country, including military bases where high rates of PFAS have been discovered.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also is moving to collect industry data on PFAS uses and health risks as it considers regulations to reduce potential risks caused by the chemicals.
“There is nothing safe and nothing good about PFAS,″ said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who introduced the cosmetics bill with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. “These chemicals are a menace hidden in plain sight that people literally display on their faces every day.″
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., who has sponsored several PFAS-related bills in the House, said she has looked for PFAS in her own makeup and lipstic, but could not see whether they were present because the products weren’t properly labeled.
“How do I know it doesn’t have PFAS?” Dingell said, referring to the eye makeup, foundation and lipstick she was wearing. “People are being poisoned every day.″
Graham Peaslee, a physics professor at Notre Dame and the principal investigator of the study, called the results shocking. Not only do the cosmetics pose an immediate risk to users, but they also create a long-term risk, he said.
“PFAS is a persistent chemical,” Peaslee said. “When it gets into the bloodstream, it stays there and accumulates.”
The chemicals also pose a risk of environmental contamination associated with manufacturing and disposal, he said.
“This should be a wake-up call for the cosmetics industry,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, a Washington nonprofit that has worked to restrict PFAS.
The products tested in the study “are applied each and every day by millions of Americans. It is critical that we end all non-essential uses of PFAS,” Andrews said.
The man-made compounds are used in countless products, including nonstick cookware, water-repellent sports gear, cosmetics and grease-resistant food packaging as well as firefighting foams.
Studies on exposed populations have associated the chemicals with an array of health problems, including some cancers, weakened immunity and low birth weight. Widespread testing in recent years has found high levels of PFAS in many public water systems and military bases.
“PFAS chemicals are not necessary for makeup,” said Arlene Blum, a co-author of the study and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, an advocacy group in Berkeley, Calif. “Given their large potential for harm, I believe they should not be used in any personal care products.”
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates cosmetics, had no comment.
The Personal Care Products Council, an association representing the cosmetics industry, said that a small number of PFAS chemicals might be found as ingredients or at trace levels in products such as lotion, nail polish, eye makeup and foundation. The chemicals are used for product consistency and texture and are subject to safety requirements by the FDA, according to Alexandra Kowcz, the council’s chief scientist.
“Our member companies take their responsibility for product safety and the trust families put in those products very seriously,″ Kowcz said.
She said the group supports prohibition of certain PFAS from use in cosmetics.
Brands that want to avoid likely government regulation should voluntarily go PFAS-free, Blumenthal said: “Aware and angry consumers are the most effective advocate” for change.”