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Makeup is full of toxic ‘forever chemicals.’ Why aren’t they banned?

The Biden Administration is moving to regulate some PFAS chemicals. But many experts say it’s too little too late.

Makeup is full of toxic ‘forever chemicals.’ Why aren’t they banned?
[Source Image: DianaV.Mendoza/Sketchfab]

Ever wonder how your mascara or lipstick stays on all day? It might be that it contains PFAS, a class of chemicals used to make products water- and oil-resistant that are also found on Teflon nonstick pans and Gore-Tex waterproof clothing. Unfortunately, PFAS are linked to cancer and other serious health problems.

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This week, the Biden administration announced new laws designed to protect Americans from these toxic chemicals. By the end of 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will require manufacturers of PFAS to test and publicly report the quantity of some PFAS chemicals found in everyday items, including makeup, food packaging, nonstick pans, and stain-resistant furniture. But some researchers and environmental activists say this won’t fix the problem, and it’s time for the government to ban the use of these harmful chemicals outright.

What are PFAS?

PFAS—or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds—refer to more than 4,000 chemicals found in a wide range of consumer products because they can increase resistance to heat, stains, water, and grease. These chemicals do not break down in the environment, and human exposure to them has been found to cause cancers, weaken immunity, and lead to other negative health outcomes. In the midst of the current pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said there is evidence from human and animal studies that PFAS exposure may reduce antibody responses to vaccines, which could mean that it might decrease the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, though more studies need to be done.

PFAS are often called “forever chemicals” because they stay put in the environment. “Once they’re fabricated, nothing can break them down,” says David Bond, a professor at Bennington College who studies PFAS. “Once they’re released, they move around through the air, water, and soil. They accumulate in plants, animals, and humans, sticking around for seven years, throwing our most essential bodily systems into disarray, even at tremendously low levels of exposure.”

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The regulation problem

EPA regulation is a step in the right direction, says Bond, and it follows similar regulation in the European Union, where in 2019 some PFAS chemicals were restricted in products made or imported into the region. This year, the governments of Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway announced that by July 2022, they will formally propose a more stringent ban on production, marketing, and use of this entire class of chemicals throughout Europe.

But the EPA regulation doesn’t go far enough, Bond says. “The EPA development this week is long overdue, but it is not enough,” he says. “This is a plan to keep studying the problem in the hopes that we can eventually do something about it. But we know exactly how bad, extensive, and urgent the crisis of PFAS contamination is. We don’t need to study it; we need to start doing something about it.”

Chemical manufacturers have lobbied against government regulation of PFAS, arguing that not all of these thousands of chemicals are equally bad and therefore, they should be analyzed one at a time. “These chemical companies are running major lobbying campaigns,” says Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “One of their main arguments is that you have to regulate each individual chemical, which would take a geologic time scale to accomplish. It’s basically a tactic to delay regulation.”

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Some chemical companies also  argue that since these toxic chemicals are ubiquitous, it will be impossible to replace them across so many product categories. “PFAS are used by a broad range of companies and industries worldwide for their unique performance properties,” says Sean Lynch, communications manager at 3M. “For example, PFAS make innovations like life-saving medical devices and low-emission vehicles possible.”

David Andrews, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an organization devoted to ridding the environment of toxic chemicals, points out that the new rule only forces chemical manufacturers—like 3M, Dupont, and Chemours—to disclose how much PFAS are in their products. This law does not hold individual brands or product makers responsible for disclosing this information. For example, an individual mascara brand will not be legally required to say how many PFAS are in their product. “The regulatory threat is relatively low on consumer product companies in terms of forcing them to test or reformulate their products,” he says.

A dark history

PFAS chemicals have been around since the 1940s. Today, they are largely made by corporations like 3M, Dupont, and Chemours, which have applied them to an array of consumer goods. The EWG has published internal memos and documents from 3M and DuPont, revealing that these companies researched the risks of PFAS and found they were toxic to humans, but kept these studies secret for decades from employees and the public.

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“The companies that manufacture PFAS chemicals knew they were toxic almost from they moment they started producing them,” says Bond. “They amassed extensive documentation of their deadly effects on their own workers and on nearby communities since the 1960s, but buried this information away while integrating these chemicals into a dizzying array of consumer products.” For instance, as early as 1950, 3M knew that PFAS built up in the blood of mice, and in 1963, its internal technical manual deemed PFAS toxic. In 1989, 3M found elevated cancer rates among its PFAS workers, and in 1992, Dupont found the same thing.

3M spokesperson Lynch says that the company is now offering more transparency into its internal documents. “To broaden the global knowledge on PFAS, 3M has placed thousands of documents in the public domain, including more than 150 published studies conducted by 3M and other researchers on potential environmental and health effects of PFAS, including PFOS and PFOA,” he says. 

Chemours did not immediately respond to our request for comment. A spokesperson for Dupont referred us to the American Chemistry Council for comment.

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Everywhere chemicals

Scientists have found that PFAS are all around us. They are found in high concentrations in public drinking water in 33 states. They are widely used in foam-based products used in military installations and by civilian firefighters to extinguish fires. In recent months, researchers have identified them in even more consumer products. Last year, scientists from the University of Notre Dame found PFAS in the crotch of Thinx menstrual underwear, resulting in a class action lawsuit accusing the brand of endangering customers, which is still underway. (Thinx denies the allegations.) And this year, some of those same scientists published a study of PFAS in makeup. They tested 231 frequently used cosmetic products and found that 52% had high fluorine, the dangerous chemical in PFAS.  It found that 82% of waterproof mascara, 63% of foundations, and 62% of liquid lipstick had high quantities of fluorine. While the researchers laid out the brands whose products they tested, they chose not to identify which products contained high levels of PFAS.

Brands respond

The new EPA regulation will not have an immediate effect of eliminating PFAS from these products. It will simply force chemical manufacturers to disclose how much of certain types of PFAS is in them. Andrews says that much more regulation is required, but in the meantime, he believes consumers are becoming more aware of PFAS, which is forcing brands to be more transparent. “I think this EPA regulation filters down to these consumer product companies and cosmetic companies in terms of the fact that there is more public awareness about PFAS,” he says. “The initial step for them is to understand their supply chain better to see what contaminants are in their products and doing product testing.”

Some brands are banning these chemicals of their own accord. Ikea for instance, has added PFAS to its list of banned substances. L’Oreal has also said it will eliminate PFAS from their products, although it didn’t provide a timeline for this process.

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What consumers can do

Olson says that consumers can work to reduce their exposure to PFAS chemicals by choosing products that are labeled free of PFAS, but given how widespread the chemicals are, it’s impossible to completely eliminate PFAS from your environment. “People cannot shop their way out of this problem,” Olson says. “You and I, and everyone in the United States [are] walking around with these chemicals in our bodies. Unfortunately until the government cracks down on the use of these chemicals, we are all guinea pigs being exposed to these chemicals.”

There are now several bills being proposed to fully ban PFAS chemicals. The No PFAS in Cosmetics Act, for instance, would direct the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to to ban PFAS from cosmetics. The Clean Water Standards for PFAS Act would stop polluters from contaminating waterways with toxic levels of PFAS. And the PFAS-Free Military Purchasing Act would prohibit the Department of Defense from procuring items with PFAS in them. According to Olson, we should know whether these bills pass by the end of the year.

Olson says that people who are concerned about PFAS should support these regulations. “Brands certainly have a role to play in eliminating PFAS from their products, but to fully address the problem, we need the federal government to step in and take meaningful regulatory steps,” he says. “What the EPA proposed was the first step in cracking down on the worst PFAS uses, but it is going to take a long time—and it is going to be a big fight—to reduce consumers’ exposure to these chemicals.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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