There are more than 4,700 different PFAS chemical compounds, researchers said. Since the 1950s, they have been widely used in a number of consumer products, including stain-repellent fabrics, nonstick cookware, polishes, waxes, paints and cleaning products, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Unfortunately, PFAS are considered “forever chemicals” because they don’t naturally degrade, Bruton said. Instead, they accumulate in the bodies of humans and animals. It’s believed that every single American has a detectable level of PFAS in their bodies.
Some PFAS chemicals have been shown to be toxic, potentially contributing to high cholesterol levels, low infant birth weights, immune deficiencies and thyroid gland disruptions, according to the EPA.
“The problem with these chemicals is they last a long time in the environment as well as in your body,” said Dr. Maaike van Gerwen, an assistant professor in the Institute of Translational Epidemiology at Mount Sinai in New York City. “We do not know exactly what the harm is of exposure to very low levels of these chemicals over a very long period of time, because these are a relatively new kind of chemical.”
For example, there are concerns that PFAS’ effect on the thyroid could lead to thyroid cancer, van Gerwen said.
Other possible health risks of PFAS include kidney cancer, testicular cancer and high blood pressure, the researchers added.
For this study, researchers purchased 231 different cosmetics products in the United States and Canada and tested them for fluorine, Bruton said.
“We found over half the products we tested contained elevated fluorine levels,” Bruton said.
The cosmetic categories that had the highest percentage of 213 high fluorine products were foundations (63%), eye products (58%), mascaras (47%), and lip products (55%), the study found.
Here is a chart outlining the complete findings:
Credit: University of Notre Dame
Even more concerning was that cosmetics containing high levels of fluorine more often than not failed to disclose any PFAS chemicals on their labels, Bruton noted.
Further analysis of 29 cosmetics with high fluorine levels revealed that they contained between four and 13 specific PFAS chemicals, researchers found. However, only 1 of the 29 products listed PFAS as an ingredient on the product label.
“Even if a consumer is doing their due diligence and trying to avoid harmful chemicals by reading labels, our work is showing that these harmful chemicals are often not disclosed,” Bruton said.