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BREAKING: New Study Finds Toxic PFAS in Many Popular Cosmetics

A class of toxic chemicals known as PFAS have been found in cosmetics produced by major beauty brands in the US and Canada, according to a new study published in the scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology. 

What are PFAS?

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of about 5,000 synthetic compounds that contain fluorine bonded to carbon, a strong chemical bond that makes them hard to break down. PFAS are used in a variety of products such as clothing, furniture, cookware (yep, it’s the same stuff used to make nonstick pans), carpets, food packaging, and adhesives that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. They are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not naturally break down and have been found to accumulate in the human body and the environment. Equally worrying is that PFAS can persist in the environment for hundreds of years (hence the nickname “forever chemicals”) and are potentially toxic. They are linked to a range of serious health problems such as certain cancers, thyroid disease, decreased immunity, and hormone disruption.

What did the cosmetics study find?

The peer-reviewed study tested for PFAS in 231 makeup and personal care product samples—including lipstick, lip balm, eyeliner, mascara, foundation, concealer, blush, and nail polish—and detected what the researchers characterized as “high” levels of organic fluorine, a key element in PFAS, in over half of the products. Those with the highest levels of fluorine included waterproof mascara (82 percent of brands tested), foundations (63 percent), liquid lipstick (62 percent), and other eye products such as eyeshadows, eyeliners, and eye creams (58 percent). 

In the cosmetics industry, the compounds are added to products to help make them become more durable, spreadable, and water-resistant. Industry literature reviewed by the researchers indicated that PFAS are commonly used in products that are advertised as “water-resistant,” “long-lasting,” and “waterproof.” And because cosmetics are used on the skin, these potentially harmful compounds can be absorbed more easily through the skin, through your tear ducts, or ingested. Lipstick, for example, can be ingested easily since it is worn on your mouth.

What are beauty brands hiding?

What is even more difficult to swallow is that the study found that 88 percent of the tested products failed to disclose on their labels any ingredients that would explain the chemical markers for PFAS—revealing a huge gap in North American labelling laws. The cosmetics tested in the study came from dozens of brands, including L’Oreal, MAC, Cover Girl, Clinique, Maybelline, Smashbox, Nars, and Estee Lauder, but the study didn’t reveal which brands use the PFAS compounds.

Frustratingly, the reason PFAS likely aren’t disclosed on product labelling is because supply chains in the cosmetics industry are so complicated—so it’s possible brands don’t even know PFAS are in the ingredients they use in their products. Labels often list general terms such as methicone or acrylate, but these ingredients can be treated with PFAS and come in PFAS-containing versions to improve the effectiveness of that particular ingredient.

Currently, US lawmakers are taking action. This month, the No PFAS in Cosmetics Act—which would prohibit cosmetics manufacturers from including PFAS chemicals in their products—was introduced in the US House and Senate. While new studies and legal tightening on this issue makes us believe in a brighter future, we still have a long way to go in removing these chemicals from the beauty sector and ultimately improving transparency. In the meantime, it’s up to us to be educated and aware of the ingredients in the beauty brands we use.

How do you avoid PFAS in makeup?

Because PFAS are often hidden from labels, it’s difficult to avoid. But since the study found fluorine was most often present in products that claimed to be water-resistant, long-lasting, and waterproof, it might be good to start by avoiding products with these claims. You can also look to clean beauty experts (like Kinder Beauty Box) that are knowledgeable about cosmetic ingredients and processes. 

Importantly, look for brands that are transparent about their supply chain and make an effort to ensure their ingredients are being sourced from safe, reliable sources in a sustainable and ethical way. You can also educate yourself about specific products by using the Environmental Working Group’s Deep Skin Database, which lists product ingredient concerns as well as product animal-testing policies. But keep in mind that the database can’t capture products in which PFAS chemicals are not disclosed on labels. 

What does this mean for Kinder Beauty?

Here at Kinder Beauty, we remain committed to only providing our customers with high-quality products that are 100% cruelty-free and vegan, and made from the cleanest ingredients (based on the best available scientific research). 

We take this news seriously, and we will immediately begin taking steps to ensure that no PFAS are making their way into your home through products found in our monthly boxes, or in our Marketplace.

This study highlights the importance of all of us paying close attention to what brands we’re supporting, what products we’re using, and what ingredients we’re putting in, on, and around our bodies. 

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Nicole Axworthy is a Toronto-based writer and author of the vegan cookbook DIY Vegan.