Green cosmetic makers know their audience. One manufacturer, in addition to the standard lines about how long-lasting and colorful their product is, says that their lip tint is “cruelty-free,” vegan, and made from wholesome ingredients like coconut oil and shea butter.
Missing from the product description is any reference to per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or “PFAS” — although one tube of that particular liquid lipstick contained 865 parts per million of the PFAS indicator fluorine, according to a new investigation from the environmental wellness community and blog Mamavation.
Of the 83 lipsticks, mascaras, and other beauty products tested by Mamavation, 54 were found to have organic fluorine, with eight containing organic fluorine levels higher than 100 parts per million. PFAS exposure has been linked to everything from cancer to birth defects to lower vaccine effectiveness.
“Originally, I thought that green beauty would have had consistently lower levels than regular beauty,” products, Leah Segedie, founder and editor-in-chief of Mamavation, told EHN. “It doesn’t really look like that.”
Makeup: a surprising PFAS hotspot
This summer, a University of Notre Dame research team tested 231 makeup products for fluorine, finding that more than half contained the PFAS indicator.
Dr. Rainer Lohmann, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island who researches PFAS contamination but wasn’t involved in the Notre Dame study, told EHN that testing for organic fluorine is a faster and cheaper way to screen for a range of PFAS — especially since mass spectrometry tests currently only target dozens of the thousands of chemicals in that family.
After the University of Notre Dame study came out, Mamavation, which had previously tested for PFAS in products like period underwear and ketchup, received questions from readers about whether PFAS were in their favorite green beauty products.
Makeup is “a daily exposure that they have,” Segedie said.
Focusing on waterproof mascara and long-lasting lipstick — cosmetics found by the University of Notre Dame researchers to contain the highest organic fluorine levels — Mamavation sent unopened cosmetics from a number of brands to a third-party lab for testing. Segedie called the testing a “spot check” of one or a couple of products from a particular company, noting that she crowdsourced which brands to test based on what makeup Mamavation community members used. “I couldn’t say that this would represent every product and every formula,” she added.
The products with the highest levels of organic fluorine included liquid lipstick from Clove & Hallow, a lip stain from Coastal Classic Creations, a liquid lipstick from Alcove, and two kinds of mascara from Burt’s Bees. EHN has reached out for comment to Clove & Hallow and Burt’s Bees.
Brands whose makeup contained no detectable levels of organic fluorine included 100% Pure, BeautyCounter, Crunchi, Hennè, Lily Lolo, and Pure Haven. Interestingly, some brands had one or more products with non-detectable levels of organic fluorine and one product with elevated levels. See the full results here.
Segedie added that green beauty products are still generally safer than conventional makeup as they’re less likely to contain other dangerous chemicals.
Because of their durability and water-repelling qualities, PFAS, originally developed by the military in the 1940s, are found in everything from fire-fighting foam to nonstick cookware. Scientists have linked PFAS to a host of health effects, including an increased risk of certain kinds of cancer, increased cholesterol levels, birth defects, and immune system harms. While some of the most toxic PFAS are no longer used, there is evidence that their replacements cause similar harm.
Our skin is actually pretty good at absorbing PFAS molecules, although that ability lessens if the PFAS is bound to other substances, like microplastics, said Lohmann. “It’s not as bad as drinking (PFAS-contaminated) water, but it’s certainly close,” he added. An animal study published last year found that mice exposed to a particular type of PFAS on their skin had lower spleen and thyroid weights — indicative of immune suppression.
Makeup wearers could also be unwittingly ingesting PFAS-laden makeup through their tear ducts and mouths. Graham Peaslee, senior author of the Notre Dame study and professor of physics at the University of Notre Dame, noted in a press release that regular lipstick wearers could ingest a few pounds of lipstick in their lifetime. PFAS from cosmetics could also end up in our drinking water and air during its manufacture and when people wash makeup off their faces.
Getting PFAS out of makeup
Credit: Diana Ruseva/Unsplash
Some makeup manufacturers purposefully add PFAS to their products to make cosmetics last longer and spread more easily. In talking to green makeup manufacturers, though, Segedie said that it appears many brands did not purposefully add the chemicals.
Green beauty companies in particular, which tend to be smaller than their conventional counterparts, rely on third-party manufacturers to make their products — meaning they have less control over raw ingredients, Segedie said. PFAS can also be unintentionally added to products if raw ingredients are stored in PFAS-containing plastics, or if fluorinated chemicals are used to clean manufacturing equipment.
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