More than 50% of cosmetics contain so-called ‘forever chemicals’, and there’s growing evidence they harm our health and the environment so the New Zealand Environmental Protection Authority wants to ban them from beauty products by 2025.
The ‘forever chemicals’ are called PFAS, which stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, and the term covers a group made up of thousands of synthetic chemicals that have a bond between carbon and fluorine.
PFAS don’t exist in nature - they were first created in the 1950s, and they help make products resistant to water, grease, or heat.
That’s why they’re used in a range of products, from non-stick pans, to stain-resistant carpets to grease-proof fast food wrappers and even waterproof jackets.
PFAS are used in makeup because they help improve product texture, make it waterproof or help it last longer.
Banning them is a “fantastic move”, says Melanie Kah, associate professor at University of Auckland’s School of Environment.
Why are PFAS called ‘forever chemicals’?
The bond between carbon and fluorine in PFAS is so strong that it basically never breaks down, Kah says.
The only way you can destroy them is with “super, super high temperatures”, but this requires a huge amount of energy, so they’re unlikely to degrade naturally.
And if they do degrade, they don’t break down into safe chemical compounds - they basically just break down into smaller PFAS.
“It's a little bit like plastic,” she says. “It stays in the environment for several hundreds of years - that's far too long.”
How many makeup products have PFAS?
A 2021 study from the University of Notre Dame in the United States found 52 percent of cosmetics had indicators of PFAS.
They tested more than 200 products including foundation, concealers, lip, eye and eyebrow products.
There were high levels of fluorine, an indicator of PFAs, in:
- 56% of foundations and eye products
- 48% of lip products
- 47% of mascaras
The rates were particularly high for long-wear or waterproof makeup, like liquid lipsticks, waterproof mascaras and long-lasting or wear-resistant foundations.
But, as Kah says, “it doesn't mean that if you don't buy long-lasting makeup that there won't be traces of PFAS in it”.
Scientists are starting to identify human health issues linked to PFAS
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says PFAS may be associated with higher risk of kidney or testicular cancer, high blood pressure, increased cholesterol, changes in liver function, decrease in babies’ birth weight and decreased immune response in children.
Research into the impact on human health is ongoing, and there’s not universal agreement.
Some studies have found that the level of PFAS in cosmetics may not be high enough to directly harm our health.
“In 2018, Denmark’s Environmental Protection Agency conducted a risk assessment of five different PFAS unintentionally present in high concentrations in cosmetics (body lotion, foundation and concealer),” Abhishek Gautam, senior scientist risk assessor at NZ’s Institute of Environmental Science and Research says.
“It was concluded that the levels at which PFAS identified in the individual products tested was unlikely to pose a health risk for consumers.”
But Kah says even if the level is low, because PFAS don’t break down, their concentration builds up in the body over time.
“They've been used since the 1950s, they are just everywhere,” she says.
“There was a survey a couple of years ago about PFAS in human blood in the US, 99% of people had PFAS in their blood,” Kah says.
“We cannot get rid of them now, they keep cycling around.”
And it’s this persistence that makes them bad for the environment, too.
How do I know if my makeup has PFAS in it?
Unfortunately, there’s no obvious answer.
Makeup labels will often list main ingredients, so if PFAS were intentionally added you might see them there.
You can also search for ingredient lists online.
But the term PFAS covers a huge group of chemicals: there are somewhere between 9000 to 12,000 different PFAS, says Kah.
“If you see the word “fluoro-something”, that would be an indicator.”
Graham Peaslee, the principal investigator of the 2021 study that found PFAS in 52% of cosmetics, has suggested a simple test you can do.
“Paint a piece of paper with a swatch of your lipstick or mascara, put a drop of water on it, and see if it's there the next morning. If it is, there's PFAS; if the water soaks into the paper within seconds, there's not,” he told InStyle magazine in 2021.
But Kah warns this test may not be perfect, as there could be alternative substances that are making the product water-resistant.
“Analysing for PFAS is super expensive,” she says. “We struggle at the unis to do this kind of analysis so you wouldn't be doing it as an individual.”
The solution? To support the Environmental Protection Authority’s suggested ban on PFAS altogether, she says.
“What they’re proposing is that there won't be any PFAS. So we won’t need to worry about labelling.”
What the NZ Environmental Protection Authority is wanting to do
They’re proposing updates to the Cosmetic Products Group Standard, which covers everything from soap to sunscreen to makeup.
As well as banning PFAs by 2025, they also want to align our ingredient rules with the European Union, so that our list of banned and restricted substances matches the EU, which is considered a global high standard.
They also want to extend the rules to cover more products - some products have hazardous substances in them, but in such small amounts that the overall product is not classified as hazardous.
But what if I really love my long-wear foundation or waterproof mascara?
“Get a grip,” Kim Ryan, executive committee member of the NZ Association of Registered Beauty Professionals says.
“The world will not fall over if you don't have waterproof mascara. Go and get your eyelashes tinted, that's the best waterproof mascara you can have.”
Besides, she says, waterproof mascara needs much more cleansing to get it off - something that causes more stress on the eye tissue which leads to wrinkles, “and no one wants that”.
You’re also better off without long-wear foundation, she says, because it’s terrible for your skin.
“We need our skin to breathe. If you've got something that is going to provide waterproofing, you’re keeping bad bacteria in the skin. The normal microbiome of the skin is being altered by this wrap of glad wrap on your face.”
Long-wear or waterproof makeup causes all sorts of skin issues, allergies, and rashes, she says.
For events like a wedding or when you want your makeup to stay perfect for hours, “you can use a normal foundation and a setting powder that will do exactly the same job and allow your skin to breathe.”
“In my years as a makeup artist, I never ever used a makeup product that was that type of product,” Kim says. “It’s not necessary.”
Kim says she didn’t know about PFAS but now is “quite horrified by it, and it makes me think we need to be really letting consumers know.”
“Five years ago we were using polyester beads in scrubs, they were banned and the world didn’t fall apart, beauty therapy didn't fall apart.
“Manufacturers had to find something that was better and environmentally friendly.”
“There's nowhere here that you need to be dressed up to go. This is us. This is how we are.”
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