Applying makeup is a daily activity for millions of Americans. These products are often purchased without a second thought regarding their safety, and even those of us who do read through ingredient lists will often find no references to harmful chemicals on the labels of our cosmetic products. However, a new study has revealed that over 50% of sampled cosmetic products contained high levels of harmful PFAS ingredients. PFAS, per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a harmful class of chemicals widely used in consumer and industrial products such as teflon, non-stick coatings, and water resistant packaging. However, these compounds have been linked to a host of adverse human health effects and may be toxic at extremely low doses. 

A research team consisting of collaborators from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana University, and the University of Toronto cataloged the concentrations of PFAS chemicals in 231 cosmetic products from the United States and Canada. These products were divided into eight subcategories: face, concealer, lips, eyebrows, eyes, mascara, foundation, and miscellaneous. Samples from these products were screened via spectrometry, a method that uses light to analyze the chemical makeup of a material. Of all cosmetics tested, 52% contained fluorine, a marker for PFAS, above a threshold needed to be considered “high” fluorine concentration. In particular, the categories of face, lip, and mascara contained the largest proportion of products with high concentrations. For example, 82% of waterproof mascaras containing high levels.

While the most common route of PFAS exposure is ingestion, increasing evidence has shown that dermal absorption of this chemical via contact with skin may be dangerous too, particularly chemicals applied near the eyes. These chemicals have known links to multiple types of cancer, immune system disruption, and harm to developmental and reproductive systems. Of the products screened, only 8% listed PFAS as an ingredient despite the researchers’ findings. This is due to a lack of regulatory requirements; companies are not required to disclose all ingredients even if high levels are present. This leaves many consumers unknowingly exposed. For more information, visit EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database, which provides detailed information on potentially harmful chemicals that may be present in cosmetic products. 

Heather Whitehead is a current graduate student at the University of Notre Dame in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Managing Correspondent: Samantha Tracy

Press Article: Many cosmetics contain hidden, potentially dangerous ‘forever chemicals’”

Journal Article:”Fluorinated Compounds in North American Cosmetics

Photo Credit: Pixabay

9 thoughts on “The Ugly Truth about Beauty Products

  1. Do you know of a website that comments on the risk of different cosmetics/face cream brands? if so, we can specially select the harmless brands when we make a purchase.

  2. One can only wonder how much of the skin care industry propagates its own use (use make up, skin gets worse, needs more make up,…). Has their been any research looking into the addictive nature of make-up, and how long it takes skin to detox (especially in the face)?

  3. PFAS bad for health; using this type of product will be the reason for liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression, and cancer.

    Thanks for this article.

  4. 50% is quite high. Those products containing high levels of harmful ingredients are applied directly to our skin and being absorbed. This may lead to serious diseases in the future, I think.

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