Lots of makeup may contain potentially harmful ‘forever chemicals’

Signs of long-lasting PFAS chemicals turned up in about half of tested cosmetics

Teen girl applies makeup

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

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Chemists have uncovered an ugly truth about the beauty industry. Many makeup products contain long-lasting, potentially harmful “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.

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

“There is no known good PFAS,” says Graham Peaslee. He’s a physicist and chemist. He works at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Peaslee was part of a team that did the first large screening for PFAS in cosmetics sold in the United States and Canada. The team tested 231 products for fluorine. This is a key part of any PFAS. Fifty-two percent of those products contained a high fluorine level, suggesting it contained at least one PFAS. That included 63 percent of foundations, 55 percent of lip products and 82 percent of waterproof mascaras.

Long-lasting or waterproof products were especially likely to contain lots of fluorine. That makes sense, since PFAS are water-repellent. They may be added to cosmetics to make the products more water-resistant.

Peaslee’s team then tested 29 products for specific PFAS. All contained at least four PFAS. But only one product listed PFAS as an ingredient.

Once in the body, the PFAS in these products can break down into other nasty chemicals, Peaslee says. One such byproduct is PFOA. That’s short for perfluorooctanoic (Pur-FLOR-oh-ok-teh-NO-ik) acid. This chemical has been linked to cancers and low birth weights.

The researchers reported their findings June 15 in Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

The exact health impacts of the PFAS in makeup are not yet known, Peaslee says. But makeup wearers may not be the only ones at risk. Cosmetics washed down the drain could taint drinking water. And makeup dumped into landfills can pollute the environment. 

Maria Temming is the Assistant Managing Editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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