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."
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.