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Makeup may contain potentially toxic chemicals called PFAS, study finds

By Sandee LaMotte, CNN

The “No PFAS in Cosmetics Act” will be introduced in the US House and Senate on Tuesday following the release of a new study that found high levels of a marker for toxic PFAS substances in 52% of 231 makeup products purchased in the United States and Canada.

Some of the highest levels were found in foundations (63%), waterproof mascara (82%) and long-lasting lipstick (62%), according to the study published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

In addition, the study found some 88% of the tested products failed to disclose on their labels any ingredients that would explain those chemical markers, even though that is a requirement of the US Food and Drug Administration.

“It’s a little shocking and hopefully a wake-up call for the cosmetics industry in terms of how widespread the PFAS contamination is across types of makeup products,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, or EWG, a consumer organization that maintains a database on personal care products which contain toxins.

“The most common PFAS is polytetrafluoroethylene, the ingredient most commonly known as Teflon, or the coating on pans. But alll in all, we have identified 13 different PFAS chemicals in more than 600 products from 80 brands,” said Andrews, who was not involved in the study.

The bill will be introduced in the US Senate on Tuesday by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and in the House by Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan.

“Americans should be able to trust that the products they are applying to their hair or skin are safe. To help protect people from further exposure to PFAS, our bill would require the FDA to ban the addition of PFAS to cosmetics products,” said Collins in a statement.

“Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of man-made chemicals, which includes PFOA, PFOS, and GenX. These chemicals can bioaccumulate in bodies over time and have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, liver damage, decreased fertility, and hormone disruption,” the statement said.

In an email to CNN Health, Dingell said, “These chemicals are in products that we use every single day and most people don’t even know the danger they face daily.”

The proposed act would direct the FDA to issue a proposed rule banning the intentional addition of PFAS in cosmetics within 270 days of enactment, with a final rule to be issued 90 days thereafter.

Lack of disclosure

The new study used a marker for PFAS — the chemical fluorine, which is different than the inorganic fluorine added to drinking water — to identify the presence of PFAS chemicals in the 231 products they purchased from retail stores in the United States and Canada.

“We found fluorine as a surrogate for PFAS was in all sorts of cosmetics. We didn’t expect almost every cosmetic to light up like it did,” said study author Graham Peaslee, a professor of physics, chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame.

The study found that more than three-quarters of waterproof mascara, nearly two-thirds of foundations and liquid lipsticks and more than half of eye and lip products had high fluorine concentrations.

In addition, samples from 29 of the products with the highest levels of fluorine were sent to an outside lab for an in-depth analysis that could identify 53 specific PFAS chemicals. The analysis found each of those 29 products contained at least four PFAS chemicals of concern.

However, the most disturbing finding, Peaslee said, is that 28 of the 29 products in which specific PFAS chemicals were found did not disclose those chemicals on the label.

“Some of it could be unintentional, due to manufacturing issues, but there are several products where the levels are so large, they had to be intentionally added for something like durability or water resistance, because that’s what PFAS do very well,” Peaslee said.

“Although I’ve often counseled my patients to avoid products with “perfluor” or “polyfluor” on the ingredient list, this new study concerns me because many of the products contaminated with these compounds did not even list these compounds on the ingredient list,” said Dr. Whitney Bowe, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center, who was not involved with the study.

“Moreover, the types of products that tested positive for high levels of fluorine — and thus likely to contain PFAS — are often used close to and around the eyes and lips,” Bowe said.

That’s a danger because PFAS chemicals may be more readily absorbed by the “thin, delicate mucous membranes” that are close to the eyes tear ducts, she said. In addition, women often “lick their lips and unknowingly ingest the ingredients in their lipstick, which is yet another route of exposure,” Bowe said.

In response, the Personal Care Products Council, a trade association whose 600 members “represent more than 90% of the U.S. beauty industry,” said “we are waiting for internal scientific review” before commenting.

CNN also reached out to the Cosmetics Alliance Canada but did not hear back before publication.

What are PFAS?

PFAS chemicals are made up of a chain of linked carbon and fluorine atoms, which do not degrade in the environment.

“In fact, scientists are unable to estimate an environmental half-life for PFAS, which is the amount of time it takes 50% of the chemical to disappear,” according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

PFAS chemicals are used in all sorts of products: Nonstick cookware, infection-resistant surgical gowns and drapes, cell phones, semi-conductors, commercial aircraft and low-emissions vehicles.

The chemicals are also used to make carpeting, clothing, furniture and food packaging resistant to stains, water and grease damage. Foods that contain a lot of grease — such as burgers, fries and cookies — are prime candidates for wrappers made with PFAS.

While two of the most ubiquitous PFAS — the 8-carbon chain perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) — were removed from consumer products in the United States in the early 2000s, the industry has created many new versions. More than 4,700 types of PFAS existed in 2018, a number that rises as industry invents new forms.

Newer PFAS chemicals are made with 4- or 6-carbon chains but appear to have many of the dangerous health effects as the older versions, leaving consumers and the environment still at risk, experts say.

“They went to the shorter chain carbons, and you study them, and they do just about the same thing,” microbiologist Linda Birnbaum, the former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, in a prior CNN interview.

“Some people call it the ‘Whack-a-Mole’ problem; others call it the chemical conveyor belt,” Birnbaum said. “We don’t really require adequate safety testing before things are put on the market.”

Called “forever” chemicals because they do not degrade in the environment, PFAS are so widespread that levels have been detected in the blood of 97% of Americans, according to a 2015 report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

PFAS in cosmetics

The fact that PFAS chemicals are added to cosmetics is not new.

The FDA says they are “intentionally added” to products such as “lotions, cleansers, nail polish, shaving cream, foundation, lipstick, eyeliner, eyeshadow, and mascara” to condition, smooth or make skin appear shiny or to “affect product consistency and texture.”

Common names for PFAS include “PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), perfluorooctyl triethoxysilane, perfluorononyl dimethicone, perfluorodecalin, and perfluorohexane,” the FDA said.By law, all ingredients are supposed to listed on the product label, in descending order of magnitude. However, the FDA said, some of these chemicals “may also be present in cosmetics unintentionally as the result of raw material impurities or due to the breakdown of PFAS ingredients that form other types of PFAS.”

How much PFAS can be absorbed via the skin? That’s a question that needs to be resolved with future studies, the FDA says.

What to do?

If you are concerned about PFAS chemicals in the makeup you wear, you could start by avoiding using any waterproof or long-lasting products. Much of the makeup with the highest levels of PFAS markers were labeled as “wear-resistant” or “long-lasting,” the study said.

“Although it’s desirable to have mascara or lipstick or foundation that lasts a little longer, I believe most consumers would rather opt for safe products that might not have the same staying power,” Bowe said. “They do present a legitimate public safety concern.”

Shopping for organic or “natural” makeup product doesn’t always help either, experts say.

“Although many consumers assume that a product labeled ‘natural’ is inherently safer for the skin, that’s not actually the case,” Bowe said. “I’ve seen many brands use the word “natural” on their labels and in their marketing, yet they contain ingredients that are considered controversial in terms of safety for humans and the environment.

“I encourage my patients to shop brands that are transparent about their supply chain and take efforts to ensure that ingredients and packaging are being sourced from safe, reliable sources in a sustainable and ethical way,” Bowe said.

Although it won’t capture products in which PFAS chemicals are not disclosed on labels, consumers can use the Skin Deep database on EWG’s site to look up specific products, Andrews said. EWG has also created a page for each of the 13 chemicals they have seen listed on labels:

Some retailers are taking action

Some retailers, including Walmart, Target, Rite Aid, CVS, Walgreens and Amazon, have said they are now looking for toxic chemicals in beauty products, including those marketed to women of color, including skin lightening creams, hair straighteners and relaxers, according to the 2021 Who’s Minding the Store? A Report Card on Retailer Actions to Eliminate Toxic Chemicals.

The report is a collaboration of nonprofit partner organizations, including the environmental advocacy groups Toxic-Free Future, WE ACT for Environmental Justice and Defend Our Health.

“Restrictions on cosmetics sold by Target, Rite Aid, CVS, Walgreens and Amazon primarily apply to their private brand beauty products,” said report coauthor and Mind the Store campaign director Mike Schade.

The World Health Organization has called out the dangers of mercury in skin lightening creams, while studies have found endocrine-disrupting chemicals in hair relaxers and other products marketed to women of color. Women of color typically use more beauty products than other races, including skin lightening creams, hair straighteners and relaxers.

Formaldehyde is released into the air as a gas when some hair solutions are applied and then processed with heat, according to the US Food and Drug Administration.

Research shows that women of color have higher levels of toxic chemicals related to beauty products in their bodies, and this is linked to higher incidences of cancer, poor infant and maternal health outcomes, learning disabilities, obesity, asthma, and other serious health concerns,” said Taylor Morton, director of environmental health and education at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, when the report was released.

“Availability of safe and affordable consumer products marketed to Black women is an environmental justice issue,” said Mount Sinai pediatrician Dr. Maida Galvez, the founding director of the New York State Children’s Environmental Health Center, in a statement at the time.

Some of the greatest gains by companies evaluated by the report card were in the beauty and personal care sector. The report named Ulta Beauty as the most improved retailer — rising from an F result in 2019 to a C grade today. Sephora showed the greatest improvement over time, the report card found, moving from a D in 2017 to an A today.

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