More than 50 per cent of cosmetics contain toxic chemicals, study says: here's how to avoid them

A new study found PFAS in more than half the beauty products it tested

Natural cosmetics ingredients for skincare, body and hair care
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Toxic chemicals are still widely used in the cosmetics industry, according to a new study published online by Environmental Science & Technology.

The peer-reviewed study, which tested hundreds of products, found PFAS, otherwise known as “forever chemicals”, in cosmetics produced by major brands in Canada and the US.

The study’s authors found “high” levels of organic fluorine, an indicator of PFAs, in more than half of the 231 make-up and personal care samples it tested. These included lipstick, eyeliner, mascara, foundation, concealer, lip balm, blush, nail polish and other commonly used beauty products.

Waterproof mascara, foundations and liquid lipsticks were found to most frequently contain high levels of fluorine.

What are PFAs?

PFAs, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, refer to about 9,000 compounds also used to make food packaging, clothing and carpeting.

“PFAs are a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals,” according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Both chemicals are very persistent in the environment and in the human body – meaning they don't break down and they can accumulate over time

“PFOA and PFOS have been the most extensively produced and studied of these chemicals. Both chemicals are very persistent in the environment and in the human body – meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects.”

Some of these effects include reproductive, developmental, liver and kidney damage. The chemicals are known to cause tumours in animals, while the most consistent findings correlate PFAs to increased cholesterol levels.

“[PFAS] are added to change the properties of surfaces, to make them nonstick or resistant to stay in water or oils,” says study co-author Dr Tom Bruton,  senior scientist at the Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley, California.

“The concerning thing about cosmetics is that these are products that you’re applying to your skin and face every day, so there’s the skin absorption route that’s of concern, but also incidental ingestion of cosmetics is also a concern as well.”

Seek out brands that use all natural ingredients. Courtesy Tata Harper
Seek out brands that use all natural ingredients. Courtesy Tata Harper

Which brands were tested?

For the study, Bruton and colleagues purchased cosmetic products in the US and Canada from brands such as L’Oreal, Ulta, Mac, Cover Girl, Clinique, Maybelline, Smashbox, Nars and Estee Lauder.

They found that 55 per cent of lip products and 58 per cent of eye products had a high percentage of fluorine. The study did not specify which brands were found to be using toxic chemicals, as it did not set out to name and shame.

"High fluorine levels were found in products commonly advertised as 'wear-resistant' to water and oils or ‘long-lasting,’ including foundations, liquid lipsticks, and waterproof mascaras," Bruton and colleagues wrote.

Most worrying is the fact that PFAs were not listed on the labels of these products, making it very difficult for consumers to avoid them.

How do I avoid toxic chemicals in beauty products?

  • Choose products with shorter ingredients lists.
  • Invest in brands that use all-natural ingredients.
  • Make your own natural body products at home, using the likes of coconut oil, sugar and avocados.
  • Keep in mind that terms such as "pure", "organic" or "natural" are not legally backed, so are essentially meaningless
  • Try to avoid:
    Talc: According to Medical News Today, talc poses a health risk due to potential contamination with asbestos – both are natural minerals that often form close together in the earth. Asbestos is a known cancer-forming chemical and can contaminate untested talc.
    Phthalates: These are present in some nail polishes and hair sprays, as well as many scented cosmetic and household items. Phthalates can contribute to hormonal imbalance, which can lead to breast cancer.
    Parabens: Found in make-up, moisturisers, hair products and shaving creams, parabens are hazardous because they enter the body through the skin and mimic oestrogen, a disruption that has the potential to trigger the growth of breast cancer cells.
    Formaldehyde: Present in cosmetics, lotions, shampoos, shower gels, nail polishes and hair straightening products, formaldehydes can cause allergic reactions and irritate the eyes and respiratory system, according to Medical News Today. Some studies in laboratory animals have also linked the chemical to cancer.
    Carbon black: Used to give colouring to mascaras, eyeliners and lipsticks, carbon black has been linked to cancer by The Environmental Working Group.