"If you can't pronounce it, you probably shouldn't be using it."
You might've heard skin-care enthusiasts and makeup obsessives utter this phrase when referring to beauty products, particularly in relation to the synthetic chemicals and other components that make up the ingredients lists. The suggestion is that the longer and more complicated the ingredient name, the more likely the product is to have a damaging effect on your long-term health. And this month, nothing has caused a stir quite like PFAS, also known as 'forever chemicals.'
Sometimes nestled among the beauty ingredients we all know and love, like hyaluronic acid, retinol, and vitamin C, forever chemicals have come under fire lately for the supposed harm they can pose when included in cosmetic products. It has been reported that high levels of exposure to PFAS have been linked with birth defects, cancer, and thyroid issues, for example. But what exactly are forever chemicals? And is there any need to be worried about their inclusion in makeup and skin-care products?
What are forever chemicals or PFAS in beauty products?
"PFAS, also called polyfluorinated alkyl substances, are multifunctional chemicals with a wide array of uses," explains Esther Olu, a cosmetic chemist and licensed aesthetician. They are synthetic (man-made). Olu adds that these chemicals are used in a variety of industries including textiles, clothing, cooking (pots and pans, for instance), and cosmetics. Why are they included? PFAS happen to be water- and grease-resistant, which makes them particularly useful in everyday life.
In regard to cosmetics, says Olu, PFAS are more commonly seen in long-lasting or waterproof makeup products such as mascara. Dr. Emma Wedgeworth, a consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson, further explains that PFAS ingredients are often added to cosmetics to help provide a sheen to the skin or to improve the texture of a product, making it easier or more enjoyable to use.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that common PFAS used in cosmetics include: PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), perfluorooctyl triethoxysilane, perfluorononyl dimethicone, perfluorodecalin, and perfluorohexane. The reason why PFAS are referred to as 'forever chemicals,' says The Cosmetic Regulator (an anonymous cosmetic and personal care product regulator based in the UK), is because they break down in the environment very slowly.
PFAS are multifunctional chemicals sometimes used in long-lasting or waterproof makeup products such as mascara.
"There are around 4,500 individual PFAS chemicals used across industries," says The Cosmetic Regulator. "In cosmetics there are only nine [PFAS] substances permitted for use in cosmetic products through both the UK and EU cosmetic regulations." That's right — they have been given the green light to use. More on that later.
This doesn't mean that all nine PFAS chemicals are used in cosmetic products. "Alternative substances are actually being used more," says The Cosmetic Regulator, adding that these nine substances are also regularly reviewed by expert panels of regulators, toxicologists, and environmental specialists. Why? To be sure of their safety when incorporated into your favorite long-wear makeup and skincare, something we'll get on to.
Why are we so scared of PFAS in beauty products — and how did they end up there?
Registered Toxicologist Rani Ghosh pinpoints the documentary The Devil We Know for drawing attention to PFAS. The documentary highlighted the alleged dumping of a very high concentration of these chemicals into water in West Virginia from the 1950s to the early 2000s. The investigation followed reports of deformities and illness among members of the public living in the area of the alleged dumping.
Recent research has found that some PFAS chemicals are being included in certain cosmetic products, so it's no wonder the beauty community is concerned. Ghosh says it's rare that PFAS are used in cosmetics, but how did they get there in the first place? She explains that if you look at your favorite product's INCI list (the list of ingredients), you likely won't see PFAS listed there. "'Ended up' isn't necessarily the appropriate term," clarifies Olu, "as they are intentionally used in formulations, though sometimes contamination of PFAS can occur, too." Ghosh also says that PFAS can sometimes be residual, meaning they are an ingredient within an ingredient.
Are PFAS dangerous to health?
Ghosh says we don't have much research on which PFAS are safe or hazardous. Equally, she says there is no data to suggest they can cause health concerns. Both Ghosh and The Cosmetic Regulator told R29 that consumers do not need to be worried about PFAS substances in cosmetic products.
PFAS are present at such low levels in cosmetics, says Ghosh, that they are not going to cause any health concerns. Ghosh, Olu, and The Cosmetic Regulator all agree that it is the dose that makes the poison. The Cosmetic Regulator points out that currently, the UK and the EU have rigorous and regular safety reviews, which take place when a substance (or a group of substances) are discovered to be concerning. Ghosh agrees: "I would say no, you don't have to be worried. All large consumer-care companies will comply to the European cosmetic regulation in the UK and Europe. That is law." Within that, says Ghosh, it is stated that you are not allowed to sell unsafe products. "Period. PFAS or no PFAS, your product has to be fundamentally safe."
Rani says there is a misconception that the UK and EU is more regulated than North America. "We've done really well in Europe and set a gold standard framework for cosmetic regulation," says Rani, "however, it is important to note that if regulation exists, other regions do look to it for guidance." Rani says other regions don't disregard a prohibited list of ingredients when formulating. "Science is science, wherever you go," she explains. "I'm a toxicologist and I have worked globally, supporting product launches in Europe and the US. We don't ignore safety frameworks that exist in the world." Rani adds that the US specifically is undergoing a major update to its cosmetic regulation, called the Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act of 2022 (MoCRA).
The higher the percentage [of PFAS] in the formulation and the more used, the more harmful, but PFAS are not present in cosmetic products in high percentages.
The Cosmetic Regulator
Before a cosmetic product can launch in the UK or EU, it must have a Cosmetic Product Safety Report (CPSR) which examines all the ingredients used, says The Cosmetic Regulator. This includes the exposure site and level, the frequency of use, and any concerns about ingredients reacting within the formulation. The Cosmetic Regulator ensures R29 that this report closely examines the dose and exposure. "The higher the percentage in the formulation and the more used, the more harmful," it explains, "but PFAS are not present in cosmetic products in high percentages."
A CPSR can only be completed by a certified toxicologist, which is where Ghosh comes in. She has worked for some of the largest personal-care companies in the world. Toxicologists are present throughout the design and development process and their job is to evaluate the safety of a beauty product. Any cosmetic product which does not have a CPSR is non-compliant, adds The Cosmetic Regulator.
Which beauty products contain PFAS?
BBC News reports that the likes of Urban Decay and Revolution are selling makeup in the UK which has been alleged to contain these so-called forever chemicals. The BBC claims that products containing PFAS include Urban Decay Naked Palette 2 and Naked Palette 3, and Revolution Relove High Key Shadow Palette.
Refinery29 contacted both brands for comment. L'Oréal, which owns Urban Decay, responded: "At Urban Decay, product safety is our top priority and all our products are safe for consumer use. As a responsible company that is deeply involved in scientific research, Urban Decay is committed to innovation and rigorously applies the latest scientific research to continually improve the performance and sustainability of its products."
As a result of the wide range of properties of PFAS, L'Oréal told R29 that it has to look for a specific substitute for each one, "working with combinations of raw materials to replace these ingredients in our formulas, while maintaining their original sensoriality." L'Oréal told R29 that phase-out and substitution plans are "well underway" and that the company has already removed PFAS from the majority of its products.
Revolution echoed this sentiment. "We comply fully with all EU and UK cosmetics regulations," the brand told R29, "and we have already begun the process of phasing out poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances [PFAS] from our products."
Are PFAS bad for the environment?
If the experts say that there isn't anything to worry about, why are brands removing PFAS from their products? Ghosh says that negative public perception impacts the decisions that companies make when formulating their products. She believes that brands are setting a precedent by eliminating PFAS. "It's sometimes in the best interests for everyone involved to remove ingredients such as these," says Ghosh, referring to the unsavory attitudes towards PFAS. And often, says Ghosh, there are better alternatives.
Dr. Wedgeworth also explains that higher levels of PFAS and their contamination of water is a real issue, so eliminating them in their entirety is probably a sensible idea. The Cosmetic Regulator agrees: Removing PFAS doesn't mean they are 'unsafe' (remember, they can legally be used). Instead, formulators are aware that they are very hard to break down in the environment, says The Cosmetic Regulator, and so they seek out substances that perform better and break down easier as we try to live more sustainably.
PFAS found in beauty products are said to be unlikely to pose a health risk. Brands are not allowed to sell unsafe products. PFAS or no PFAS, your product has to be fundamentally safe.
Can PFAS or chemicals be absorbed into the bloodstream?
Just because you put something on your skin doesn't mean it will be absorbed into your bloodstream and live there forever, says Ghosh. "We're talking about the skin barrier a lot at the moment and the skin is exactly that: a barrier designed to keep things out." Ghosh says that cosmetics, by definition, are not supposed to have a physiological impact. "They are not meant to be absorbed into the skin or the bloodstream. Cosmetics are very superficial products and this is how they are regulated."
But what about exposure over a long period of time? "Say you're using a cosmetic product like a mascara, which contains low levels of PFAS, and you're applying it every day for the rest of your life," explains Ghosh. "The science accounts for this chronic exposure, too. A toxicologist's job is to look at a makeup product in regard to the immediate and the long-term health effects." Toxicologists take into consideration the chronic exposure over a lifetime. "It's a real 360 review," says Ghosh.
What should you do if you're still worried about PFAS in cosmetics?
If you're still concerned about PFAS in cosmetics, Ghosh recommends sticking to reputable companies. "Indie brands are great and we should be supporting them, but sometimes, if they're too independent and it's a bit like a farmer's market, regulation comes into play." Ghosh says there are strict rules which beauty brands must adhere to, and some homemade brands may not do so.
The EU and the UK always take a cautious approach with chemical substances and protecting consumers, says The Cosmetic Regulator. "This is why PFAS have all of a sudden become newsworthy," it explains, "because a group of EU members submitted a dossier on PFAS to have them re-examined due to concerns." It adds that high levels of PFAS would never be permitted for use in cosmetic products under EU or UK law.
The Cosmetic Regulator assures R29 that authorities in the UK and the EU have specific groups which examine cosmetic ingredients regularly. "There is so much happening in this space because we want to ensure nothing is missed and everything is examined properly and is safe to use for consumers," it says.
At the end of the day, everything is a chemical, from the banana you eat first thing in the morning to the 'natural' oils which are claimed to be 'cleaner' and 'greener' than other products.
The Cosmetic Regulator
Are 'clean' or 'natural' beauty products better for you?
Dr. Wedgeworth observes that wellness is a huge priority for people currently, and many, understandably, want to ensure they are not harming themselves by using potentially 'toxic' chemicals. But there is a lot of misinformation out there, particularly where 'clean' or 'natural' beauty products are concerned, especially on social media.
As PFAS are synthetic, or man-made, says Ghosh, there is now a 'synthetic is bad and natural is best' mentality in beauty. But just because an ingredient is made in a lab doesn't make it any less safe. Take cherry pits, says Ghosh. Though derived from nature, they contain a compound which releases a poison called cyanide. Again, it comes back to the dosage. It's highly unlikely that you would ever ingest enough of these to poison yourself.
Olu reports that beauty marketing has created concern that there is something wrong with things that are not 'natural' or 'clean.' As a result, anything that doesn't fit in this box is deemed inherently bad. "This creates mass hysteria of chemicals," says Olu, which experts refer to as 'chemophobia.' Take the recent Olaplex furore, for example. A fragrance ingredient called lilial (previously found in the brand's No.3 Hair Perfector) caused worldwide panic when it was banned due to reports that it was linked to infertility. Olaplex removed the ingredient, citing an "abundance of caution."
The Cosmetic Regulator believes that labels such as 'clean' and 'green,' as well as "fake, misunderstood news and generalizations across social media," contribute to fear mongering. "All of these things demonize products, which are completely safe to use and have been tested as such by toxicologists," it says. "At the end of the day, everything is a chemical, from the banana you eat first thing in the morning to the 'natural' oils which are claimed to be 'cleaner' and 'greener' than other products." Even water is a chemical. What's more, when it comes to cosmetics, the terms 'natural' and 'clean' are not regulated. They don't have a standard definition. In other words, they don't mean very much.
Should you continue to use makeup with PFAS in it?
If you have a question about any of the beauty products you're using, Ghosh recommends putting it to the brand. She assures R29 that they don't go into a black hole. "People like me — toxicologists — look at them," says Ghosh. "Questions often come into my inbox and I always give an honest response. Your favorite indie brand on Instagram? Message them." Ghosh suggests asking: 'Do you conform to the European regulation?' or 'Have you got a safety assessment in place?' She says that they are obligated to respond to you. "And if they don't, your business doesn't matter to them, so move on."
As all of the experts have explained in this article, PFAS found in beauty products are unlikely to pose a health risk. Ghosh says she could be here all day telling R29 how reputable brands make safe cosmetic products, so her advice would be to take the scary articles you read about PFAS with a pinch of salt. The Cosmetic Regulator echoes this and says that lots of press around PFAS is "careless" and "uneducated." This perpetuates misunderstanding and fails to address context. "It's so important to consider the percentage [of PFAS] in a formulation," it stresses. "The work that happens in the background ensures these permitted and legal percentages are safe."
Ghosh encourages everyone to enjoy the beauty products they've spent their hard-earned money on. "They are not going to kill you," she says. "There are people like toxicologists who are the filter between the business industry and you as a consumer. This is a science and we are here to advocate for consumer safety."
This story was originally published on Refinery29UK.