Cosmetics and personal care products enhance the way we look and feel. During the pandemic, I started a self-care facial routine.
It helped me deal with lockdown orders, while at the same time adjusting to my new identity as a mother. I applied toner, serum and cream to brighten the mornings and relax the evenings.
But many of these products contain chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as ‘forever chemicals’. They are used as ingredients that can make products waterproof and long-lasting and help them spread smoothly on the skin.
European data indicates there are approx 170 PFAS ingredients for use in cosmetics and personal care products. Each year, more than 80,000 kg (more than 176,000 pounds) of PFAS can be released into wastewater and solid waste streams after product use, a major source of PFAS to the environment.
PFAS are persistent environmental contaminants. The properties that make them commercially useful, especially their stability, also mean that there is no environmental mechanism to degrade them, so they accumulate. PFAS are found all over the world, including remote areas such as the Arctic.
PFAS also accumulates in the body. The Canadian Health Measures survey sampled blood from thousands of people and found different PFAS in all participants.
The main sources of exposure to PFAS for humans are through food, from drinking contaminated water or eating food, such as fish or meat. Agricultural soils can contain PFAS from biosolids used as fertilizers as wastewater treatment plants cannot remove it.
Therefore, PFAS are transported to crops and animals via biosolids. Similarly, PFAS are added to personal care products, applied, then washed away to enter wastewater treatment plantscontributing to a global environmental problem.
PFAS in personal care products
In our study, we measured PFAS in cosmetics and personal care products purchased in Canada. Products included bronzers, concealers, foundations, shaving cream, sunscreens and moisturizers.
PFAS were extracted from each product and measured using mass spectrometric instruments. These instruments identify individual PFAS present in the products, in high milligram amounts or down to one trillionth of a gram.
Particularly high levels resulted from products containing the following ingredients: C6-16 perfluoroalkylethyl phosphates, perfluorooctyltriethoxysilane and perfluorobutyl ethers.
The Canadian government has banned some PFAS in products including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and any chemical that breaks down to produce PFOA.
New proposed Canadian PFAS regulation will set a threshold level at one microgram per gram in products. This means that PFAS at or below this level would be incidental and the ban would not apply.
Yet we found that some products contained PFAS – including those that should not be used – at levels a thousand times higher than the incidental level, indicating a lack of oversight when it comes to managing PFAS in the personal care industry.
Higher PFAS levels
Epidemiological studies show that PFAS levels in the body are associated with regular use of cosmetic and personal care products.
A study in the United States noted higher blood levels of PFAS in women who usually wore foundation. Linked to a study from Korea application of cosmetics and personal care products to higher PFAS levels in breast milk.
Another study illustrated this trend more directly. PFOA is purposefully added to a sunscreen determine whether blood levels would rise in one subject after application. Within three weeks, the sunscreen’s PFOA was equivalent to about 10 percent of the total amount of PFOA in his body.
This suggests that the daily application of a PFAS-containing sunscreen during the summer months – and frequent application of other PFAS-containing cosmetics and personal care products – would lead to high blood levels.
Unlike other chemicals, certain PFAS such as PFOA are persistent. This means that human exposure to even small amounts of PFAS can accumulate over time. The half-life of PFOA in humans is about two years.
Even after this point, half the amount of PFOA remains and takes years to eliminate. However, continuous exposure from multiple sources, including the use of cosmetics and personal care products, ensures that PFOA and similar PFAS are never eliminated.
In Canada, PFAS is widely measured in the environment with adverse health effects are prohibited for use. These include PFOA and PFOS, long-chain PFCAs, and any compound that breaks down to produce them. This is a broader regulatory approach compared to other regions, including the US, limiting individual PFAS.
But other regions take an even broader approach. that of the European Union proposed ban would eliminate thousands of PFAS. California plans effectively eliminate all PFAS ingredients used in cosmetics and clothing by 2025.
Canada should consider a similar approach as a solution to protect people from exposure to these chemicals when applying cosmetics and personal care products, and to prevent them from being released into the environment after use.
Regulations and information
There is a solution: ban PFAS from cosmetics and personal care products. Some cosmetic stores like it Sephora does not include PFAS on their “clean” cosmetic lists so that consumers can avoid their use. But PFAS-containing cosmetics and personal care products are still readily available to Canadians.
PFAS are missing in the Canadian Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlistthe list of ingredients that should not be used in cosmetics and personal care products sold in Canada.
Environmental groups, managers and industry should work together to stop using PFAS in cosmetics and personal care products, and instead use other ingredients that serve the same purpose.
At a minimum, people should be aware of the PFAS in these products through clear labeling so that they can make informed decisions. Since completing this study, I have screened the ingredients in my products, only to find that a few contain PFAS. I have switched to other products.